Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Building New Church Strengthens Fayetteville Catholics

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 21, 2005

On the hot summer evening of June 14, Teresa Caldwell greeted people arriving at the multipurpose building of St. Gabriel’s Church for the groundbreaking Mass and ceremony for the new church of this south-side congregation, marking a new chapter in the history of this parish and the nearly two-centuries old town of Fayetteville.

They came by the dozens, pressing nametags to their chests and passing by a sign welcoming Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. A tree-shaped stage prop stood covered with construction paper cut into the shapes of children’s hands with messages like “God bless our builders.” Just inside the door a plaque honored “Iglesia San Gabriel” in Nicaragua, a church built with funds from the 600-family parish through the nonprofit organization Amigos for Christ.The pastor, Father Jimmy Adams, initiated annual parish mission trips to Nicaragua, where he has lived and worked with Amigos.

Caldwell, a founding parishioner, said it took a grassroots movement in the late 1980s to prove to the archdiocese that they had enough Catholics to start a mission in Fayetteville. Leaders wrote area residents and asked them to write the archdiocese petitioning for a church.

“This is almost as exciting as our first Mass on Aug. 1, 1987, when we met in a log cabin in the center of town … We never could understand why there wasn’t a church in Fayetteville. It’s one of the oldest towns in Georgia and has the oldest courthouse in Georgia,” she said.

The new church will make the presence of the Catholic faith even more evident, Caldwell added.

“We will be excited the day we open this building and (it will) be an outward sign to the people in the area that this is a Catholic church because most people when they come by they don’t believe it’s a Catholic church. They want to see a sanctuary, a reverent place to worship, so we’re anxious for that day,” she said. “A lot of people in this area don’t even know this church exists.”

The former mission of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro in 1987 began holding Mass at Fayetteville Elementary School and held religious education classes at a Presbyterian church. In 1991 the Franciscan friars from St. Philip Benizi began serving the Fayetteville mission, and the archdiocese acquired 16 acres on Antioch Road. The mission’s first administrator was Father Joseph Beltran and the first pastor was Father Paul Berny when it became a parish. In 1995 the first building, the current multipurpose building, was dedicated.

Fayetteville was founded in 1823, named after the French nobleman Marquis de Lafayette, who helped the nation in the Revolutionary War. It has Georgia’s oldest courthouse, a white brick structure with a clock tower built in 1831. The quiet but developing town of 13,912 people is located between I-85 and I-75 south of Riverdale and north of Peachtree City, and has streets such as Stonewall Avenue and South Jefferson Davis Road. One building’s side is painted with an old-fashioned, cursive “drink Coca-Cola” ad and the former train station, in operation from 1888 to 1939, is used for rental space. The erection of St. Gabriel is one more sign of the growing presence of Bible-carrying Catholics in both rural towns and sprawling cities across the historically Protestant Southeast, as Fayetteville’s Baptist and Methodist churches were both holding Sunday worship by 1859, and were located near the courthouse, saloon, wooden jail and wheelwright shop.

The St. Gabriel’s building was buzzing as volunteers laid out foods ranging from pimento cheese finger sandwiches to homemade white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. Archbishop Gregory arrived and greeted parishioners. Some of the nearly 40 St. Gabriel’s missionaries who had just returned the previous week from Nicaragua reminisced about the Amigos for Christ trip, where they dug ditches and built homes for impoverished Central American families.

Outside, parishioners on golf carts made final preparations for the groundbreaking. On display were architectural renderings of the new church. An eight-page color booklet described the vision and goals of the building project.

Among volunteers scurrying around was Holly McLaughlin, who has assisted with the building project while staying at home to raise her 1- and 3-year-old daughters after moving to the area from Marietta. She said that even her youngest, wearing a pink dress that matched her sister’s, was excited about the event. They joined the church three years ago, as “our family felt that this was by far the warmest and we just feel so at home. We knew instantly it’s our home.”

She began helping with the capital campaign last fall and, like others, was “stunned” by the parish’s generosity. She has found “it’s a great way to meet other parishioners and be involved. My daughter is drawing pictures for this. She doesn’t understand, but she feels the excitement … I’m meeting parishioners, and I’m a role model for my children and I’m feeling good.”

The congregation moved outside into the large grassy yard where the new two-story church will be built. They pulled out folding chairs or settled down on blankets and fanned themselves with programs on one of the hottest days of the year. Archbishop Gregory, sporting sunglasses, was surrounded by a stream of deacons, neighboring and former parish clergy and others. They crossed a pathway lined with flickering candles from suspended hurricane lanterns to a blue and white striped tent under which the archbishop celebrated Mass. In front of the altar were cornflower blue hydrangeas and ferns, and the rotating fan blew on high, blowing the white plumes of the hats of the Knights of Columbus.

In his homily the archbishop spoke of how just as a building must have a strong foundation, the parish must be built upon their love for God, their families and their community.

“No church, no matter how wonderful and beautiful it might be, is worthy of the name church unless the people who use it are in peace and harmony with each other. No church can achieve its purpose unless it calls people together in faith, hope and love to attend to the needs of their neighbors, the poor, the neglected, the outcast,” he said.

“Churches are only physical places where believers gather to celebrate their oneness in Christ. Thus He alone is the foundation and the reason that any community ever chooses to build a church. He is the very foundation upon which each church must be built. St. Gabriel’s Parish is filled with joy this day, as well you should be, because of your generous desire to build something new for Christ. You are a very hopeful sign that the life of faith is very strong in this community. You are a people of faith, hope and love and therefore I am very confident that the foundation upon which this new building will be constructed is solid and lasting and will be for this entire neighborhood an edifice of deep peace and lasting promise.”

The parish’s Life Teen music group, with flute, guitar, drums and keyboard, led the music, including the lines from the Communion meditation, “This is the air I breathe; your holy presence living in me.”

The congregation then walked a few feet over to the building site where Archbishop Gregory anointed it with holy water and asked God to bless the project. Pausing to wipe the sweat from his brow with a handkerchief, he then put a white hard hat over his zucchetto and took a shovel to dig the first bit of ground, followed by Father Adams, the architects and several other project leaders. As the crowd dispersed, founding parishioner Caldwell scooped a piece of the dirt into a small container as a keepsake.

A reception was held afterward where parishioners cut into the cake, on which the building design was iced, and lingered as the day faded and the tree frogs began to croak. Father Adams, rising from a table under another tent where he dined with parishioners, said that through the project the community “has come to life” and that they are building church, not just a building.

“When I see what has happened here and how the community is coming together … it’s an affirmation of everything we’re called to do as followers of Jesus,” said the priest, a former civil engineer.

The pastor said the church has many Delta employees, a number working in education, including teachers, two principals and a school superintendent, and that the parish has a healthy mix of young and old, including around 80 teens in Life Teen and an active seniors group.

Building committee chairman Mike Jorgensen is one of those dedicated parishioners, having been a member since 1988 after he transferred here with the Army. After retirement out of Ft. McPherson as a colonel he took another job to which he commutes daily about an hour and a half to Buckhead. He described the church as a strong, faith-filled community, and the larger community as having “a lot of overachievers” with advanced degrees and as “a terrific community for education—the school system here, it’s one of the highest regarded public school systems in the state.” There are many retired and active duty military members, many of whom have been called up for service in Iraq or Afghanistan.

He said the new 21,462 square-foot church building will have a natural stone exterior and the interior ceiling will be a vaulted wood paneled ceiling in light natural wood colors. It is the first of a number of projects planned for the next 15 to 20 years, including the renovation of the multipurpose building. The new parish will seat 474, with the ability to expand, and includes a large narthex. The lower level will have 12 classrooms, a music room, nursery and a warming kitchen. The multipurpose building will be used for offices, fellowship and additional meeting space.

They began planning in 2003, and the expected church completion date is May or June 2006. The approximate cost is $4.4 million. The architect is CDH Partners, Inc., of Marietta, and the contractor is Leslie Contracting, Inc., of Fayetteville.

Jorgensen added that the project is “long overdue” and that it’s a way for him to give back “for all I’ve been given.” He spoke of the programs needed for their own members and the community.

“We’ve had a generation of kids that have grown up in a non-church environment and by building a church we’ll get these kids back into the traditions of our faith as we go forward.”

The new church will also provide the proper environment in which couples can marry.

“I strongly believe in our parish. I strongly believe in the need for the right facilities to carry on the work of the parish and do the things we should be doing as a faith community.”

Outside University of Georgia student Katie Gaspierik said she was glad to be back home for the summer, and chatted with teen Dayna Cernickey with whom she had just participated in the Nicaragua mission trip. Both experienced the joy of giving, and Gaspierik met some UGA students who invited her to become more involved in the university’s Catholic Center.

“Now I have really good friends (at school) that are Catholic … I’ll be more involved in the Catholic association,” she said, adding that the parish youth program “has already gotten a lot bigger.”

Cernickey found that the mission trip changed her perspective on life. She bonded with the children she served and realized the privileges and responsibility she has as an American.

“I have to go back next year,” she said enthusiastically.

Gary Dubas said members of the parish have gone on the mission trip for the last three years; he is moved by how it enriches the parish’s faith and sharpens its spiritual vision, particularly for the teens.

“You take the kids down there, and it’s amazing how they change. The children are so enlightened. It’s hard to explain … you have to taste, smell and experience (it).”

Jamaica native Frances Facey also takes the yearly mission trip and has found it a good way to get to know more people, as she doesn’t have the time to be active in other activities at the parish, and “each year new people go.” She, too, is glad about the new church and believes some new parishioners will come from Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, which “is overflowing.”

Finance committee chairperson Joyce Mucha, originally from Philadelphia, was drawn to the area because of the strong school system for her children. She works at the Methodist church and said that St. Gabriel and Holy Trinity, the two Catholic churches in Fayette County, have a good relationship with Protestant churches and her parish holds a joint service with the neighboring Episcopal church on Good Friday.

“It’s just an exciting time for us. We’ve been longing to have a traditional church,” she said. “The new church building will give us a more traditional worship area invoking deeper reverence and providing much needed space. It will allow us to engage in many more activities to enrich the spiritual lives of our congregation as well as the community. We hope to have a greater presence in the community, attracting new parishioners and demonstrating the faith of the people of the Catholic Church of St. Gabriel.”