AMITE, Louisiana — Through tear-stained words, laden with emotion, friends of Father Mark Beard struggled to describe the life of their beloved pastor.
“Passionate,” “sincere” and “compassionate” came to mind, but on this day none seemed appropriate.
Father Beard, a popular pastor at St. Helena Catholic Church in Amite, Louisiana, a rural area about 65 miles northwest of New Orleans, was killed in a single-car accident Aug. 2 in southern Mississippi. A Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman said Father Beard was traveling southbound on Interstate 55, about one mile north of the Louisiana state line, when, for an unknown reason, his vehicle left the road, swerved into the median and struck a concrete culvert.
Father Beard’s vehicle then flipped. He was not restrained, according to highway patrol officers. Father Beard was 62. A memorial Mass is scheduled Thursday at Our Lady of Mercy Church in Baton Rouge, and a funeral Mass is scheduled Friday at St. Helena. Burial will be at Amite Memorial Garden.
Hours after the accident was reported, Bishop Michael Duca of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, where St. Helena is located, asked for prayers for Father Beard, his family, parishioners and friends who mourn his loss.
Noted for his inspirational and at times fiery homilies, Father Beard was never known to stray from the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. He would cross political ideologies and even faiths to unify people in a city of 3,800 that has close to 30 churches, always preaching the foundational teaching of the faith.
Close friend Mike Fulmer, a businessman from nearby Ponchatoula, recalled how Father Beard once said “being anti-Catholic is not a religion; being anti-Methodist is not a religion.”
“You find your best way to try to get to heaven but don’t knock someone else’s way of trying to get there,” he told the Register.
Although not Catholic, Det. Koven Banks of the Amite Police Department said he cherished his relationship with Father Beard.
“If I was ever Catholic, I would want him to be my father,” Banks said. “He was a pillar of the community due to how he tried to create unity for the greater good of Amite.”
A native of Baton Rouge, Father Beard graduated from Louisiana State University and received his master’s degree in divinity from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. For several years he worked in the family business, Beard Engineering.
Father Beard, a late vocation who was ordained May 30, 2009, at St. Joseph Cathedral in Baton Rouge, was close friends with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards and his wife, Donna, serving as their pastor at St. Helena. Father Beard led prayers at Edwards’ two gubernatorial inaugurations.
“[Father Beard] was a wonderful man and a great pastor, close personal friend to me and [Donna],” Edwards said in a statement Aug. 3.
“It was the way he was able to pastor to them, to us, I should say. He wasn’t just dynamic,” he said. “I think the fact that he became a priest relatively late in life and he had a lot of other experiences in the business world and so forth, and traveling around, that he was able to relate to people perhaps better than, or at least differently, than priests who hadn’t had that experience.
“He’s going to be tremendously missed, and there’s a lot of sorrow and pain associated with this, but our faith teaches us that he now is in a much, much better place, and that provides obviously a sense of comfort.”
Father Jeff Bayhi, who was vocation director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge when Father Beard was a seminarian, said, “EWTN tells us to live the truth, and Father Mark stood in the truth regardless of the consequences.
“In his 11 years of the priesthood, he had a profound effect, and we are truly grateful that we had Father Mark to further the salvation of the people of our diocese.”
By his own admission, Father Beard in his younger years enjoyed money and power and dating. Father Miles Walsh, who delivered the homily this past Sunday at St. Helena, the first Sunday after Father Beard’s death, remembered how his close friend once said he stayed away from alcohol and drugs because he was “too busy chasing girls.”
“He had everything going for him: handsome, working in the family business, flying around the world, coming home to a nice house,” Father Walsh said, before quickly adding, “Here is where the story interesting.”
It was in 2000 when Father Beard’s father asked his son to visit Medjugorje. Father Walsh said Father Beard loved his parents, and he wanted to honor them, so he agreed.
“It was during the pilgrimage that something very profound changed Mark’s heart,” Father Walsh recounted. “He uncovered a truth he had yearned for. He had to have it.”
Father Walsh said Father Beard attended confession while on the pilgrimage and when telling his story to a fellow pilgrim, it was suggested Beard consider the priesthood.
Father Walsh said he met Beard a year later and realized he was a man who was on a quest in search of God.
“He was a devout priest who worked really hard to bring people who had fallen away from the Church back to the Church,” Fulmer said. “His zeal and passion never stopped; his love of God was evident in everything that he did.”
Two years ago, Fulmer and Father Beard joined together to transform 400 acres of God’s finest work from an old boarding school for girls to Our Lady of Hope Retreat Center in Chatawa, Mississippi, which sits just north of the Louisiana state line and about 30 miles from Amite. Two years later, the nonprofit Chatawa Retreat Center is flourishing.
Fulmer noted that Father Beard’s tenacity and commitment to the center are bearing fruit.
“I’ve never seen anybody work so hard. He had a short life as a priest, but he probably accomplished more in his 11 years than most priests do in a whole lifetime,” Fulmer said.
During what would be his last Sunday homily, on July 30, Father Beard preached about how Catholics should not be sitting on the fence regarding their faith. He said that God did not build that fence and that the fence belongs to Satan.
He also reminded the congregation time was of the essence and that, one day, God was going to call “each and every one of you.” He said that in an instant one could be taken by God.
“I don’t know that I had ever seen Mark so elegant, so on fire,” Father Walsh said when he watched the video of the homily after learning of his friend’s death. “It was as if God had inspired Mark on that day to give us his last will and testament. I believe that is exactly what happened.”
“Mark gave God his all; he gave his whole heart to his parish,” Father Walsh said. “Above all, he loved and served the Lord, and he preached he truth.”
Richard Meek is a staff writer for The Daily Star in Hammond, Louisiana; he was formerly the editor and general manager of The Catholic Commentator, the newspaper of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.