By CHRISTA COOK, Special Contributor | Published July 22, 2004
Sunday evening June 6 the skies over Flowery Branch were filled with 1,000 multicolored balloons as the ceremonial ground-breaking for Prince of Peace Church drew to a close.
Symbolizing a multicultural community united in spirit and faith, the balloons ascended, following in the path of prayers offered earlier on this 65-acre site on Spout Springs Road where the parish will soon be located.
Led by pastor Father Fred Wendel, prayers and blessings were lifted up to God as hundreds of people stood on an orange-painted outline of the parish structures-to-be. Poised with shovels in hand, they awaited the pastor’s signal to break the ground at their feet. With the thrust of a gold shovel, Father Wendel invited all to join him in creating a moment of history for the parish.
This history began in 1956 when businessman and Buford resident Bona Allen donated 10 acres in Buford to the archdiocese in honor of his long-time employee Leo Lawler. Owner of one of the largest tanneries in the world and the employer of over 2,000 people, Allen was moved by this devout Catholic father of five who drove his family to Atlanta every Sunday for Mass. Allen’s one stipulation was that a church be built on the property within 20 years or the land reverted back to the family estate.
At first the Catholic population in north Gwinnett grew slowly. In 1975, with Leo Lawler’s “wick growing short,” he sought the help of Vic Maloof, a Catholic architect, to quickly design a small building. Thirteen families, including current parish Deacon Bill Speed, and friends celebrated the first Mass on Christmas Eve 1975, christening the mission as Prince of Peace.
Over the years the church flourished. A large expansion took place in 1987 adding a multi-purpose building that serves as the current worship space on South Lee Street. With the opening of the Mall of Georgia, the Buford Drive corridor suddenly became a major thoroughfare traveling north to Cumming and connecting with Georgia 400. The parish database of 800 families in the early1990s was closing in on 2,000 families by the year 2000.
Yet the parish continued to worship in the space built for 500 people. Masses were added, including a Spanish Mass, reflecting the growing Hispanic presence, and a Life Teen Mass. Eventually there were no more times to add Masses. There was no educational space (the parish leases space at the Buice Center, a nearby school in Sugar Hill, for education), and meeting space for ministries was in short supply. Creativity was tapped out with only 15 acres of land on site. It was time to consider a radical change, and the parish began a search for a new home.
It took more than two years, consideration of more than 80 parcels of land, and ultimately required a change in the parish boundaries to extend the search north of Gwinnett County into Hall County. In October 2002, a major milestone was reached with the cash purchase of the Spout Springs Road site in Flowery Branch.
Since closing on the property, architects CGLS were hired and a 15-year master plan developed. The first phase will include a multi-purpose Parish Life Building to serve as a temporary worship space seating 800 and an administrative center. A religious education building will be constructed connecting to the parish life center via a large narthex. The main church and day chapel will be constructed in phase two. With 65 acres at the parish’s disposal, the master plan also includes a dream of Father Wendel and many parish families to one day have a K-8 school.
The parish completed a successful “Forward in Faith” capital campaign last fall with three-year commitments pledging almost $4.5 million. For sale signs have gone up on the current site in Buford.
The general contractor Winter Construction was selected in May and detailed design work has commenced. The official ground-breaking is planned for late September. Construction timelines are still being finalized, but the parish is assured of a move-in date well before Christmas Eve 2005, the 30th anniversary of that first Mass in 1975.
While the official ground-breaking is a few months away, it was past time to celebrate in grand style. Knowing that last year’s parish picnic on the new property drew almost 1,000 attendees, and the second annual picnic was scheduled for June 6, it made sense to begin then. Countless volunteers led by the parish Men’s Club and supported by the newly formed Knights of Columbus did the planning.
The bounty included hamburgers, hot dogs, burritos, beans, rice, Brunswick stew and barbeque with desserts brought by every family to share. Approximately 1,500 people were fed. The parishioners gathered under a massive yellow and white striped tent in fellowship and sustenance, entertained by a mariachi band, compliments of the Hispanic community. The children were entertained with softball, volleyball and face painting, among other diversions. The Boy Scouts erected a rope bridge between the trees for children to try their prowess.
At 3 p.m. an army of people descended upon the tables and chairs to transform the eating area into a sanctuary for Mass. The Life Teen Band helped to set a spiritual tone as all anticipated the eucharistic celebration.
Sharply at 4 p.m. the procession was formed complete with altar servers, Deacon Mike Jones, deacon in formation Mike Woods, parochial vicars Father Eric Hill and Father Francisco Estrada as well as the pastor. At the conclusion of Mass, Father Wendel instructed the people to follow him in procession (toting shovels) up the hill around a tree line to the high point of the property where the future church buildings were outlined in orange.
To the delight of the children, they were greeted by a long net of colorful balloons, all 1,000 of them straining to be released. It was another joyous moment in the life of Prince of Peace Church, with many more to come.