By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published June 23, 2005
To the casual observer, the scene may have been a depressing one. Hundreds of people standing in an open field in the pouring rain huddled together under umbrellas.
However, June 7 was cause for celebration, despite the stormy weather, as parishioners of St. Mary Magdalene broke ground for their first permanent church building.
An impressive number of the parish’s nearly 450 families were on hand for the historic event, leaving no empty seats.
Braving the muddy field, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory processed to the area where the new church will eventually be built and offered a blessing as altar servers held umbrellas over his head.
Rather than a lengthy homily, Archbishop Gregory offered brief remarks.
“Lest it be said that the new archbishop doesn’t know when to come in from the rain … let me just say that I am delighted to be with the family of St. Mary Magdalene Church this evening,” he said. “We should all remember this day and remember that if you continue working together and loving one another, you will be the most magnificent church ever located on this site.”
Rather than the customary sprinkling of holy water, the archbishop opted to pour water from the crystal basin into the earth.
Then with his foot perched on one side of the shovel, he invited St. Mary Magdalene pastor Father Dan Fleming to join him on the other side, and together the two plunged the shovel into the earth, ceremoniously breaking ground for the new church. The applause and cheers from parishioners were almost as loud as the thunder and heavy rain.
The $3,761,000 project will include a 17,000-square-foot church that will seat 600 people. There will be administrative offices and eight classrooms. Phase two of the project will address any “additional educational needs,” Father Fleming said. The architect is Gene Barrington of Barker, Cunningham, Barrington, P.C., of Buford, and the contractor is Group 6 of Peachtree City.
Rita Prior burst into joyful tears when the shovel held by Father Fleming and the archbishop sunk into the ground. Prior and her husband, Ray, moved to Sharpsburg from Buffalo, N.Y., 26 years ago. Both Priors served on the capital campaign committee, which has managed to raise $1.2 million in pledges in just 14 months.
“We all worked so hard and were told from the beginning that it would never happen in such a small parish,” Mrs. Prior said. “But we were bound and determined to raise that money.”
For her husband, being a part of a new church has been an exciting opportunity.
“This is the ninth or tenth parish we have been in, and this is the first time we’ve ever been in on the ground floor,” he said.
Lloyd Forshee is serving as the chairperson of the building and planning committee and said he has learned a lot about the construction process. It’s been his responsibility, he said, to “pull together the thoughts and ideas” of the church community, with those of the architects and contractors. He’s been impressed by how well everyone has worked together.
“I’m not surprised, though. Everything goes smoothly here at St. Mary Magdalene,” he said.
A small band played as parishioners sipped champagne under tents and feasted on a catered buffet. Father Fleming thanked the archbishop for being with them on this “beautiful” day, and introduced the Priors, who presented Archbishop Gregory with a gift.
“Is it an umbrella?” the archbishop joked.
Mr. Prior told him that St. Mary Magdalene is the “only parish in the diocese that has an official candy,” and his wife pulled out a glass container full of M&Ms.
“We hope that every time you use it, you say a prayer for us here at St. Mary Magdalene,” she said. “And when it’s empty, you just come down here and we’ll fill it up again.”
Archbishop Gregory seemed delighted with his gift and said that though he wished it had been “a little drier,” the evening had been “wonderful.”
“It’s obvious that this is a community of folks who love one another, and that bodes very well for the future of St. Mary Magdalene,” he said.
Father Fleming said that love is what binds together the parishioners of St. Mary Magdalene.
“The level of enthusiasm here is wonderful. It’s incredible,” he said. “I really believe that the hallmark of success here is that special feeling that tends to permeate the atmosphere.”
The parish currently holds Masses in the East Coweta High School cafeteria, which parishioners have affectionately coined the “chapelteria.” Special Masses, specifically the Holy Week Triduum, are held in the three-sided tin barn that sits on the 40-acre property that will be the home of the new church.
“The presence of the Holy Spirit is undoubtedly with us in that barn,”
Father Fleming said, adding that it will be torn down to make room for the new church. “It’s a little bittersweet, but we do plan to develop some way to memorialize the barn within the new structure.”
Shirley Towle, president of the parish advisory council, said that it is easy to find God here in the green pastures of the former cattle farm.
“I love this property,” she said. “Sometimes people will just come out here and sit and pray. But to have a church here is such a special thing.”
Towle said though the property is important, it’s the people who truly make St. Mary Magdalene feel like home.
“Everyone shares time together,” she said. “It’s always been such a giving community.”
Deacon Don Kelsey has been a part of St. Mary Magdalene since it first became a mission of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City and said that the large turnout didn’t surprise him, even with the unfortunate weather.
“These are the folks that would still be here in two feet of snow. A lot of people have been waiting for this for a long time,” he said. “The people are just looking for a worship space that they can finally truly call home.”