Our Founders: Father Don Fisher

Father Don will always be the heart and soul of Focus On Renewal, and we are shocked and saddened by his sudden passing on Saturday February 25th, 2017.  Many of our FOR community loved sitting and learning from him in his beloved ceramics studio, his talent for sharing his craft was completely mesmorizing and inspiring. He spoke softly and gently, telling stories and subtle wisdom, that quite often could fundamentally change how you looked at a problem or challenge. Stopping to catch a breath and reflect with him in his blue coat walking down Chartiers Ave, in the lobby of the art center or at a stool at Renewal Coffee, always meant your day was changing for the better.

We will honor Father Don everyday by continuing to work towards his beautiful vision for a strong and supported Sto-Rox community, full of light, love and laughter-just like he was and always will be in our hearts.

Eulogy Of A Man I Loved

-Cindy Haines : Executive Director at Focus On Renewal.


In Memory of Fr. Don Fisher


We have all heard about the 3 P’s that defined Father Don – Prayer, Protest and Pottery.  Let us not forget the one that encapsulates them all:  People.  Father Don was about us. He was one of us. This did not make him less of a priest. It actually gave us a stronger sense of faith and hope: that we could actually aspire to be the kind of human being that Father Don modeled for us.


He was a man, a man of the cloth for sure, but an everyday symbol of what we are all capable of – kindness, generosity of spirit, other-centeredness. The ability to take things in stride, to enjoy a simple conversation, to really see and hear each other – these were gifts Don gave each of us – if we were open to them, if we gave a moment of our time to intersect with him.


Time is so precious. Yet, people kill time, waste time, mark time and watch clocks – none of this for Father Don. If he asked you “if you had a minute,” time stood still. I always said the same thing, “I will make time for you, Don.” He would sometimes laugh and say “Later, you REALLY look busy.” “Don, what’s up?” I would ask.  You just knew it was a new idea for the pottery studio, use of space, a different type of class, a different approach to students. You see, Don had another “P” – PASSION for Life and Learning. He was the eternal student and teacher wrapped tightly together, roles he intertwined so masterfully, every single day.


In the newspaper article it was stated that Father Don was a priest with “his feet in the street.” No office for him, no desk for sure. His office was our lobby, our coffee shop, our ceramics and pottery studio. He came to “work” every day at The Father Ryan Arts Center, but really he came to live with us and within each of us.  


Father Don was ageless. Whether you were six years old, 14, 26, 50 or 92, he could and would relate to you. We could only each be so lucky to live as Father Don did. What I would not give to see him peer into my office doorway, saying “Hey, ya got a minute …”


Two things help me through my grief. On Saturday early evening, February 25, I was sitting quietly in a chair at home, reading, when I suddenly felt overcome with bliss … a sense of nirvana, ecstasy, even – an otherworldly sense of timelessness (there was no yesterday, no tomorrow, and not even a present), a sense of floating and being disconnected from all we know, or think we know … yet at the same time, totally connected to all people and things simultaneously. I had never felt that way in 60 years. I called to my husband in the other room and said, “Something is happening right now that I can’t explain nor clearly describe. But I am going to absorb this feeling as long as it lasts and acknowledge this incredible sense of well-being.”


The next morning I found out that Father Don had died the evening before on the bus … at the same time I felt overcome with a positive energy force so powerful words cannot really describe it adequately. And I paused to ponder, if Don felt what I had experienced at the same moment, then all was well. Don died among everyday people, his people, on public transportation. Another “P” for Father Don:  PERFECT, simply Perfect.


Now, Father Don would himself bristle at the thought that anyone would describe anything about him as perfect. In fact, he was soooo humble that, when he was chosen as the Focus On Renewal Gala Honoree in 2015, he said, “I’m not really that important here. Pick someone else.” I said, “Don, you are the co-founder of Focus On Renewal. We are here because of you – you and Sister Paulette started it all. You are why we exist.


He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I was a small part of that.” Indeed! His motto was “You can’t get it done if you don’t SHOW UP.” And show up he did, day after day, his feet hitting the pavement as he strode down Chartiers Avenue towards the place he loved, that loved him right back. He came to nearly every event we had and, if he missed one, he sought me out the very next day to apologize.


One more story: Late at night, while leaving The Father Ryan Arts Center, I went to our lower level to lock up and saw a warm glow coming from the pottery studio. I felt drawn to it and peered through the door window and saw three large heat lamps surrounding and aimed at a single piece of pottery. Inside of it was one slender twig with a tiny green sprout attached to its side. Around its base was Father Don’s sweater. He had wrapped and swaddled this slender thread of life like a newborn or an infant. The capacity of Don’s love at that moment became so manifest and was a concrete symbol of this love for life … all life.


Thank you for listening. Father Don’s life narrative is one about LOVE … for everything and everyone of us.


Focus On Renewal Gala

Father Don Honored in FOR's 46th Anniversary Gala

Fr. Don Fisher was ordained a Catholic priest in 1961 and has served in parishes throughout the Pittsburgh area. In 1969, he became the first Director of Focus On Renewal (FOR).

Working out of a storefront at 610 Chartiers Avenue in McKees Rocks, Fr. Don and fellow FOR Co-Founder Sr. Paulette Honeygosky conducted door-to- door interviews with Sto-Rox residents.

Together, they collaborated with other organizations to address the needs of the community and created a credit union, an afterschool program, a lending library, a senior center and a health clinic. Fr. Don left FOR when he was missioned in Africa, from 1975 to 1979. He has also shared his time and talents with Community Human Services, The Haven at Slippery Rock and the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation.

It was in the mid 1960s that Fr. Don began to develop an interest in pottery. Self- taught through books, magazines and workshops, Fr. Don honed his craft in a pottery co-op in New York and later in his home studio. He earned a graduate degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, majoring in ceramics, and has been the resident potter at the Father Ryan Arts Center since it opened in 2008.

Father Don, always making something beautiful

Father Don, always making something beautiful

Focus on Renewal founder Rev. Don Fisher sees efforts bearing fruit

July 18, 2013 4:00 AM

By Bob Podurgiel, Pgh Post-Gazette

In the basement of the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks is a workshop where a dozen students are turning out plates, vases and other works of pottery adorned with paint and glazes that delight the eye with vibrant colors.

The students are taking one of the Rev. Don Fisher's pottery classes.

Sherine Raymond, a first-grade teacher in Sto-Rox School District, was creating what she called a "fairy castle" out of clay. The castle, with its triangular and round windows, looked as if a family of hobbits, the fictional heroes of "The Lord of the Rings" could march out of it at any time.

"All of my projects are handcrafted, created without a potter's wheel," she said.

"Father Don is an expert at the wheel and other students like the wheel, but for me, using the wheel is very a humbling experience and one that I haven't mastered yet," she said.

Under Father Fisher's teaching, however, she has created objects that include clay pumpkins and trays. She has shown them to her first-grade students, sparking an interest in some to make their own creations out of clay.

Another student, Maureen Harris from Monroeville, said she knew Father Fisher and when she found out he created pottery, she wanted to learn how to do it, too.

"He always inspires us," she said as she finished painting a vase during a class last week.


Teaching pottery at the Father Ryan Arts Center in McKees Rocks is something of a homecoming for Father Fisher, who now lives on the South Side.

In the 1960s, he served the community as a neighborhood priest and founded Focus on Renewal, a social service organization that offers a range of health and anti-poverty programs for McKees Rocks residents. Then he left for a post in Tanzania in Africa.

Father Regis Ryan succeeded him and continued the work of Focus on Renewal, which eventually led to the establishment of the Father Ryan Art Center on Chartiers Avenue in 2008.

The center offers classes and programs in the arts for children and sponsors adult classes such as pottery, which is one of the more popular offerings.

"It's thrilling to see the seed planted in the mid-'60s maturing," said Father Fisher, who is now retired. "I am having a marvelous time teaching."

He said he was drawn to carving, painting and pottery as a way to express his artistic side. "I love it. As long as the passion remains, I will keep doing it," he said.

The workshop is equipped with kilns, mixers for creating the clay from raw materials, pottery wheels to shape the clay, and an extruder to form the clay into pieces that can pressed into blocks and then turned to vases, pots and even fairy castles, by students in his advanced class.

Father Fisher proudly displayed two poster boards filled with photos of the pottery created by his students. The arts center's first-floor gallery is currently showing works by Father Fisher and those of other instructors at the arts center.