Published May 19, 2005
And on this Rock two west central Georgia mission communities built their church.
The rural communities of St. John the Baptist Mission, Thomaston, and St. Ann’s Mission, Barnesville, united as a parish May 1 for their first Mass in their new building named St. Peter the Rock Church, located between the two former worship sites in the hamlet of The Rock.
Just off of Barnesville Highway, the new church, serving Monroe, Lamar, Upson and Pike counties, is quietly removed from Atlanta, about 65 miles to the south and beyond the Atlanta Motor Speedway on 20 acres of bucolic countryside with large ponds, wild flowers and green pastures.
While the Upson County seat of Thomaston has about 9,400 people, The Rock community is fewer than a thousand people with a post office and a few stores. Its name is said to come from the fact that years ago the train would pass by without stopping, but a conductor would drop the mail by a certain rock.
Many parishioners are from the Northeast. They are without family and truly rely on each other for support. Many commute to work on the south side of Atlanta.
The two missions had considered uniting and combining resources for years. Finally last year they decided to step out in faith with the leadership of Father Karl Duggan and move ahead with the $2 million building project, despite the challenge of raising money in small congregations with a combined total of around 200 families.
The community’s first Mass was a particularly special day for Father Duggan, who was ordained in 1998 and received his first pastorate as he was installed by Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue as the first pastor of St. Peter the Rock.
“I feel honored and privileged to be these people’s pastor. They are a tremendous bunch of people and an inspiration to me and any of the priests that have been (here) before me. I’m glad to serve as their pastor and that they have a pastor,” he said. In the past he was administrator of the two missions and divided his time between them.
His mother, Noreen, along with his sister and a brother traveled from his homeland of Ireland. “The church means everything to him,” said his mother.
The sky was blue and the air was fresh on this Sunday afternoon as parishioners pulled up and found parking spots in their new lot or on the dirt, and admired their church. A cheerful courtyard with a newly planted red maple tree sits near the church’s façade, which has a stone archway over the doors, above which are high glass windows. The vestibule, with tile floors, has a light, airy feel, and portraits of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop Donoghue and Pope John Paul II hang on the walls, as does a wooden crucifix.
Among those attending was Doris Grace, who was raised in this area and converted to Catholicism after meeting her Catholic husband in New York. When she returned to the area she began worshipping at St. John the Baptist Mission. She feels that it is wise to have the congregations merge, which in the long run will cut expenses.
“We’re like one big family together,” she said, adding that, as an African-American, she would like to see more black members join. “It’s a joyful occasion and I’m so happy I lived to see it, because we have a parish.”
The ceremony began as Archbishop Donoghue gave Father Duggan the keys to the church, which he used to open the door. Parishioners then packed into the worship space with its sage green cushioned seats surrounding the altar.
The archbishop blessed the space with holy water as a sign of repentance and a reminder of their baptism. The Mass was concelebrated by Father Duggan and Father Philip Ryan, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Griffin.
In his homily, Archbishop Donoghue recalled the 2004 ground-breaking where Father Duggan had said “there is finally a sense of belief; this is the first tangible sign,” referring to how, for almost 60 years, the people of this area had awaited a church of their own.
“And from that day, from that sense of belief, that first sign upon which many more signs have been built, the people of this parish came together, worked together and overcame difficulties together,” the archbishop said. “Now the work is finished, and the gift prepared. And after God on high, the next to be thanked for this gift are the people who have made it happen. I cannot name you all, but I can see who is here, and know that from every one of you, some part of this whole has been given.”
Both communities began as missions of Sacred Heart Church, which was staffed by Redemptorist priests until recently. The first Mass was celebrated in Thomaston in 1948 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Leon Clem by Father John Doherty, CSsR. For the next few years, Mass was intermittently celebrated there and at the home of Mr. and Mrs. A. T. Green, but because of difficulties finding a home, Mass was discontinued and the people resumed their 30-mile trip to Griffin for Sunday Mass. In 1953, however, a new effort was started and Father Walter Kuhn, CSsR, began celebrating Mass in the home of Mr. and Mrs. John Osbolt Sr. every other Sunday. A fund for the new Thomaston mission was started, aided by Catholic chaplains and soldiers at Fort Benning in Columbus. For almost three years, Mass was celebrated at the Osbolt home and then at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Mallory for another two years. Property was later purchased on Georgia Avenue, Father John Mickun offered to donate the chapel building, and the first Mass was celebrated in the new chapel in 1958. In 1993, needing more space, the mission began celebrating on McCorkle Curve Road.
Up the road in Barnesville, Mass was also being celebrated at the home of Mable and Joseph Deraney beginning in 1961. Later, services moved to the Women’s Clubhouse in town, where the community worshipped for 20 years. In 1979 the congregation purchased an old school, and parishioners did all the planning and ripped out walls, insulated, rewired, erected the new walls, ceilings and paneling, and began worshipping in the church there in 1981.
Archbishop Donoghue spoke of the challenge to grow as a community in faith in their new home. He recalled how the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to the Israelites, who were enslaved by the Babylonians, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. I am doing a new thing—now it springs forth—do you not see it?”
God promised Israel liberation and brought it about as the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt and the temple reestablished. And now Christ as the “new thing” calls out from the throne of heaven: “I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” the retired archbishop said.
Christ “knew Himself the feelings we have today—He had entered the holy doors of the Temple in Jerusalem, stood within the holy and safe space defined by the anointed walls rising about Him—He had witnessed, as every good Jewish man did, the sacrifices offered by the priests upon the holy altar, the smoke of incense rising from the brazier to the unseen heights of Heaven above, and the basin of holy water in which the hands of the priest were washed clean,” he said.
“All those images we celebrate today as we dedicate our new church were a part of Jesus’ thoughts when He stood up that day in His own synagogue and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor … and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord’” to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, said Archbishop Donoghue.
And Scripture was again fulfilled as the Holy of Holies came to dwell in the new church.
“We need the new love of God every day; every day we need to see it spring forth, and to know that God forgives us and still loves us. This is what Jesus Christ proves—this is why we build Him a home in our midst, so He can be with us, all our days.”
Finally, Archbishop Donoghue spoke of how Christ chose Peter as the first pope because of his deep love, his willingness to give up everything and follow Jesus, and his profound sorrow and regret in having betrayed him. He gave him the keys to heaven so “that never, would the rock, the foundation, fail to hold up what Christ came to build, the new vessel to hold His love, the springing forth of God’s mercy—the Church, Our Church, St. Peter the Rock. And God says to us, ‘Do you not see it—do you not see that it is so?’” he concluded. “Our sense of belief is confirmed, the tangible sign is complete—our church is built, and our Lord is at home. And now, as things settle down, and life resumes its daily course, my prayer for you is this: May you never cease to come into the Presence of Jesus Christ, our new life—to visit Him, to receive Him, and to know always that the Lord is the strength of your endurance in times of hardship, and the heart of your peace in times of joy.”
He then poured out and rubbed chrism into the altar and incensed it, the fragrant smoke curling upward and over the congregation. Four women wiped off the altar and laid a white cloth atop it. The walls of the church were also anointed and candles were lit on the altar and around the church.
The church was declared a parish, and Archbishop Donoghue formally installed Father Duggan as pastor. Father Duggan thanked the archbishop who “has supported this endeavor from the very beginning.”
The amiable priest also thanked visiting priests including his first pastor, Father Fred Wendel, who “thinks he taught me everything I know, but it’s actually the other way around.” He also thanked those involved, including his family.
“Everybody has been working incredibly hard to make this happen—a big thank you to you all. I’d like to thank God, (as) from the beginning it’s been very evident that God is very much a part of the people here in The Rock, Ga. May he always be first and foremost in our minds.”
A dinner reception was held afterward. Parishioners chatted and ate while sitting around tables in the worship space that was quickly converted into a social hall, while children went to eat in the new classrooms. Noreen Duggan expressed her delight in her son.
“It’s a wonderful day. I’m really proud of him. He put a lot of hard work into it. It’s a wonderful parish, generous, with all the people … This is really a family. In this church, everybody works together.”
Many members have donated their time and talents to plan, oversee and provide other assistance to the project, which took off when, in 2002 after church growth became evident, the parish council made a presentation to parishioners on the possible merger of the two missions. The people were 84 percent in favor of the merger and a fund-raising campaign began in 2003. On June 20, 2004, the parishioners officially broke ground for St. Peter the Rock.
The wood-frame building with a split block and stucco veneer has about 13,000 square feet, eight classrooms, kitchen, chapel and office space. CDH Partners, Inc., of Marietta designed the space, and the general contractor was Group VI of Peachtree City. The rectory will be constructed next. Phase two in the future will involve building a larger worship space and converting the existing one into a parish hall.
Building committee co-chair Keith Rohling, who led the committee along with Ken Luger, said members had been brainstorming and planning for about 10 years and wanted to do something but “we weren’t sure what, and when Father Karl came he brought it together.”
“Bringing the two groups together was a catalyst to getting a project like this to come to life,” he said.
“As a mission parish there was so much to get involved in. You can’t be that involved without becoming family,” said Rohling. The project has been “not only faith enriching, but it’s community building. When you bring people together to grow toward one goal you find out everybody’s strengths and weaknesses and build on that.”
Mable Deraney, a founding member of St. Ann’s Mission, expressed a mixture of emotions as she recalled her deceased husband’s devotion to the church, and how seven of her eight grandchildren were baptized in St. Ann’s. But she welcomes the change.
“I think it’s wonderful. We had outgrown our little church. Everybody is real congenial. It’s just great and we’ve finally become a parish. We were a mission for so many years. Now we’re a parish … It’s heartwarming to see all the turnout; my son came from out of town.”
She added that previously the two communities would gather for Holy Week services and “we learned everybody’s name before we merged.” Regarding the new building, “I just had no idea it was going to be this large or nice. I was just kind of overwhelmed.”
Zach Westerfield, 14, attended St. John’s. There wasn’t a strong youth program, and he’s hoping it will be easier to establish one now.
“I’m hoping to get it started as soon as possible. I just think kids should get involved as well as adults,” he said. Nevertheless his faith is strong, as his parents “make sure I always come to church.”
His mother, Carmen, is also excited about the new church.
“We’ve already come together as a community because we’ve always been very excited about this project,” she said. When her mother was sick, she noted, “Everybody came and visited her from the church and the community. It’s a small town atmosphere.”
A resident of Pike County, she likes the location halfway between Thomaston and Barnesville. It will also be good for the RCIA program, which she’s been coordinating at St. John’s.
“We’ll be very visible in the community and have a strong Catholic presence in the area,” she said. “One of the things we didn’t have before was classroom facilities. We actually (now) have plenty of room to have different activities at the same time.”
Redemptorist Father Tom Burke came back for the reception after having served the two missions for five and a half years.
“I’m really impressed by it. It’s the first time I’ve seen the place in six and a half years and I didn’t expect this. We always dreamed of building something,” he recalled. “Everyone is so pleased with it.”
Having previously served a busy, large parish in Annapolis, Md., he knew when assigned to the missions “I had the cream of this diocese for five and a half years.”
Father Duggan, 33, chatted with members outside in the courtyard at the reception.
“It’s just a manifestation of people’s faith, even going back to 1948 when Catholicism was not the most popular religion here,” he said. “Today is the fulfillment of all their dreams and wishes.”
As before it was a maximum of one ministry per night, he’s eager to develop programs for a broad mix of young and old in the congregation, particularly “a healthy, vibrant teen and young adult program” in conjunction with the archdiocesan Office of Young Adult Ministry.
The church “is really nice. It’s kind of traditional, which people wanted, and yet kind of lends itself to a country feel. The extra space is fantastic. We’re planning in summer months to have new ministries up and running.”
As they journey forward he reflected on how they said from the beginning that “if God wants us to have this church then it will happen.”
“We overcame all sorts of obstacles. Everything went in our favor. We found the perfect piece of land, just beautiful, had a great construction team, everybody was generous. A lot of things happened along the way that just pointed to the fact that it is God’s will.”
And this Irish priest seems happy as a native Georgian in The Rock. “Anytime we do anything here everybody shows up. It’s really about family and community here. It reminds me of Ireland seeing the countryside and fields.”