Meet him at St. Louis

First slide

Though he's been an ordained priest for 14 years, Father Richard Mullins is feeling like a new father these days.

Beginning in mid-October, the 43-year-old Cuban-American priest will transition into the next phase of his ministry by leaving both his position as director of the Office of Multicultural Ministries and his residence at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Arlington to become parochial administrator of St. Louis Parish in Alexandria. His appointment as administrator of St. Louis, which is sandwiched between Old Town and Mount Vernon off of Route 1, is his first such role, but it's a position he has been anticipating since entering the seminary.

"Every day of my priesthood has been a preparation for this moment of being able to be an administrator and being able to reach out with love and to be a father to this community," Father Mullins said, sitting in the Chancery office he will soon vacate. "I'm sure it'll have, like every parish, many challenges and many blessings. I look forward to being a part of their story and for them to be a part of mine."

Even if you're not a regular to Arlington, chances are good that you'd recognize Father Mullins. In addition to his Multicultural Ministries work, the priest has served for the past several years as a regular master of ceremonies during Masses with Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. Father Mullins will give up these duties, as well as many others, as he transitions into full-time parish life.

From two worlds

With a Cuban mother and an American father, Father Mullins grew up "with a foot in both worlds," he said. In some ways, he's a local guy: born in Fairfax, raised in Vienna, schooled in Arlington ("go Knights") - but he's never lost touch with his Latino culture. He watched his non-English speaking grandparents struggle with acclimating to life in the United States, including feeling at home within their Catholic Faith.

"I remember how difficult it was for them to be spiritually nurtured," he said. "It gives me a tremendous desire to reach out."

From a young age he soaked up the example of his "heroes," the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales for whom he served at the altar at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Vienna, and other priests, such as Father Luis "Louie" Valdivieso, a former teacher at Bishop O'Connell, a fellow Cuban and "one of the funniest men I ever met," said Father Mullins. The example of Father Valdivieso, coupled with that of now-Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who ministered so whole-heartedly to the Cuban community in the D.C. area that he was known simply as "padrecito," was not forgotten by the young Father Mullins.

"All of these things have conspired to make me who I am today," he said. "I know what it's like to be part of a small ethnic group and to need someone to reach out to you and share your faith in your own language and your own way."

A non-Catholic higher education at High Point College in North Carolina gave Father Mullins insights into secular worldviews. He had to study up on Church teaching in order to debate life issues in an ethics class.

"I think that class kind of shocked me into a deeper faith - why the Church teaches what it does and the importance of getting that message out," he said.

During college breaks, Father Mullins served at Masses at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., a role that enabled him to celebrate the first Mass of his priesthood there years later. After college, he did development work for the American Red Cross for two years before deciding it was time to look seriously into the priesthood, which had been such a big question for a long time.

During a visit to Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., Father Mullins knelt in the back of the chapel and "felt this overwhelming sense of peace," he said. He thought: "I have found my niche and this is it.

"It has to be the same feeling that someone has when they fall in love and know that this is the person they are going to be with for the rest of their life," he said. "That was exactly where I needed to be, and this was the beginning of my new life."

Entering the priesthood

Five years at Mount St. Mary, interspersed with stints in Bánica, Dominican Republic; St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Falls Church; and All Saints Parish in Manassas, gave Father Mullins a "broader understanding" of the Church - especially his time at the diocesan mission.

Father Mullins was ordained May 20, 1995. He spent one year at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Winchester, four years at St. Michael Parish in Annandale and three years at St. Theresa Parish in Ashburn, celebrating Mass in the gym and sharing meals with the parish's young families. A transitional year in 2003 at St. Rita Parish in Alexandria, while adjusting to his new position of associate director of the Spanish Apostolate, paved the way for the last five years in residence at St. Charles. His full-time work was with the multicultural groups with whom he could relate so well.

The Multicultural Ministries office was created in response to both the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's document "Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity" and the ethnically diverse Northern Virginia population.

"We had all of a sudden this great mosaic of color in the diocese," he said. "It was time to see how we could meet those needs and how we could create an atmosphere of welcoming."

Leaving the nest

Presented with the challenge of parish administration, Father Mullins will transition not only from multicultural ministries, but also from the home he has built at St. Charles. About that parish and what he has learned there, Father Mullins could not say enough.

"There's an energy there and an enthusiasm that I hope I will be able to foster and grow in St. Louis Parish," he said.

For the priest so sensitive to the importance of cultural diversity, St. Charles served as a "template" for how all Catholic communities should be.

"It's a place where the door is always open and the light is always on," he said. "I think it's a place where it's impossible to feel unwelcome."

The witness, in particular, of St. Charles' young adults struck a deep chord with the priest.

"What a powerful experience that has been seeing the young people at the 6 p.m. Mass and watching the young Church respond," he said. "That's the future. Seeing them come to Mass en masse and watching them in their life transitions … has been a powerful school for me."

Father Mullins will combine his experiences from St. Charles, the Chancery and the other parishes where he served with what he's learned from the clergy with whom he has worked.

He hopes that St. Louis is a place of welcome for everyone and he looks forward to being at the church for a "long, long time.

"It's a new adventure and a new beginning, and I look forward to it with tremendous joy," Father Mullins said. "I can't wait to start."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009