By MICHAEL ALEXANDER, Staff Photographer | Published January 1, 2004
Just an hour or so south of Atlanta and about halfway between Newnan and Columbus is the cozy little town of Warm Springs, site of the archdiocese of Atlanta’s most southwestern mission, St. Elizabeth Seton.
One visit to Warm Springs and you can understand how this small town, with its retreat-like atmosphere, captivated Franklin Delano Roosevelt far beyond the water found in the spring-filled pools, which provided him relief from his polio.
It may have been the warm mineral springs that originally drew people to the town in 1832 when the first resort area was built, but today Warm Springs boasts other attractions like Franklin Roosevelt’s six-room vacation cottage known as the Little White House, the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, the Warm Springs National Fish Hatchery, FDR State Park, Georgia’s largest state park, the annual Azalea Festival at nearby Calloway Gardens, restaurants and specialty shops in renovated century-old buildings.
In 1997 the Department of Natural Resources’ Division of State Parks and Historic Sites refurbished the pools that once held the naturally heated spring water. Except for special occasions, the pools remain empty for the most part. A touch and feel basin at the bottom of the center pool allows visitors to feel the warm springs, which maintain a constant temperature of 88 degrees year round.
St. Elizabeth Seton Mission was established in 1969, making it the first Catholic church in Meriwether County. Today the pastor is an amicable and talkative priest named Father Balappa Selvaraj. This native of India was ordained a deacon in Blairsville in 1985, and he was ordained a priest in 1986 in his southern India hometown of Bangalore, a city with a population of over five million people. A city of this size is therefore a place in stark contrast to the small towns of Warm Springs and LaGrange where he currently serves as pastor of St. Peter’s Church.
Father Selvaraj makes the 35-mile drive from LaGrange to Warm Springs each Sunday following the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Peter’s Church. This past summer, seminarian Tim Gallagher was assigned to St. Peter’s. The drive to the mission was just enough time for Father Selvaraj to return some calls on his cell phone and then for the two of them to say five full decades of the rosary.
St. Elizabeth Seton Mission is two miles south of Warm Springs’ business district on Judson Bulloch Road. It was dedicated on Nov. 3, 1996. The multipurpose facility, anchored by its worship space, also contains some classrooms for religious education and a kitchen. The most aesthetic feature of the church is the large stained glass window behind the altar.
The mission is a small church community of some 55 families, but on any given Sunday you might see Warm Springs visitors, first time and returning, attending the Sunday liturgy. In addition to the 11:15 a.m. Mass on Sunday, there is 12:15 p.m. liturgy each Wednesday afternoon. This Wednesday liturgy is a tiny gathering of five people, all women, on Oct. 1, the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, but Father Selvaraj lifts up the name of the Lord, proclaims the Gospel and preaches a homily like it’s a full house.
Following Mass, Janet Lawand, a native of Baghdad, Iraq, and a 23-year resident of Warm Springs, invites Father Selvaraj and her friends to lunch at her sister’s restaurant, Anna’s Café. Lawand operates two neighboring establishments, the 52-room Best Western White House Inn and The Roosevelt Place, an assisted independent living home, where she serves as general manager and executive director, respectively. Lawand is one of those residents who likes to promote St. Elizabeth Seton Mission and the town of Warm Springs. At the restaurant everyone enjoys the Wednesday special of spaghetti, salad and bread, and they all enjoy the company of each other and their pastor before he departs. On Sunday and Wednesday afternoons, before returning to LaGrange, Father Selvaraj visits the sick and takes Communion to homebound parishioners.
Warm Springs is an appropriate name for a place with a distinction for its natural beauty and friendly surroundings. Not only does it make this peaceful town one of the archdiocese’s unique treasures, but the name also speaks to the spirit of the small, cohesive Catholic community that exists there. St. Elizabeth Seton Mission came about over 130 years after the first resort area, but like the warm flowing springs, it functions as a spiritual constant to the Catholics of the southwestern Georgia county.
In 2003 staff photographer Michael Alexander visited three outlying churches and missions around the archdiocese for the first time: St. Helena Mission, Clayton, St. Elizabeth Seton Mission, Warm Springs, and St. Bernadette Church, Cedartown. This is the second in the series of articles conveying his visits in words and photos.