Published August 18, 2005
Building a new church turned out to be no simple task for the parish community of St. Paul the Apostle.
During the construction process, they endured a devastating fire and the wrath of Mother Nature, but the July 27 dedication of the grand-scale country church that was created made the obstacles seem like nothing more than a distant memory.
The Mass of dedication was celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, and concelebrated by nearly 15 priests including two former pastors and current administrator Father Thad Rudd.
Parishioners old and young, Hispanic and Anglo, from those dressed casually to women in dressy hats, packed into the new church and spilled into the vestibule for the dedication. It was the first Mass celebrated in their new home.
Vibrant quilted banners hang from the white wooden rafters, framed by the sky blue ceiling of the church, the natural lighting and brick floor giving a cozy, outdoor feeling. Bright, Marian blue stained-glass windows line the walls of the church, filtering in even more of the sun and moonlight.
Though magnificent in structure, the church needs more than just aesthetic beauty to serve its purpose, the archbishop said in his homily.
“This is where God’s people will come together to celebrate the Eucharist. This is where you will bring your children to be baptized. This is where some of you will speak your first vows of married love. This is the place you will bring the bodies of your beloved dead to be blessed one final time before they are sent out to the glory of God,” he said. “You, as a community, will make this place sacred by your love for God and for each other.”
“This church becomes a sign of who you are by your prayers, not just the physical items,” he continued. “It’s the people who make a church possible because God uses them to build up their own community of love and faith.”
Archbishop Gregory gave a special thank you to Father Rudd.
“I want to especially commend Father Rudd, who orchestrated this generous gift of faith,” he said, as the congregation immediately stood to offer him a jubilant ovation.
Following the homily was the solemn prayer of dedication as parishioners knelt and sang the Litany of the Saints.
Archbishop Gregory then said a prayer of consecration over the altar before pouring chrism on it.
“May this altar be the place where the great mysteries of redemption are accomplished: a place where your people offer their gifts, unfold their good intentions, pour out their prayers and echo every meaning of their faith and devotion,” the archbishop prayed.
Next, he dedicated the baptismal font, and Father Rudd then walked throughout the church incensing the altar, baptismal font, the walls and the people of the church. As a special part of the dedication Mass, the archbishop celebrated the sacrament of confirmation for 10 people of the parish, who stood beneath the church’s suspended, wooden, life-sized image of the crucified Christ.
After the Mass, the congregation walked across the courtyard to the recently completed parish hall to the sounds of tolling church bells. Once inside the reception hall, they were greeted with refreshments and the exuberant sounds of a mariachi band.
Father Rudd appeared happy and relaxed at the reception, as he was greeted by excited parishioners. But the community knows that building the church was more challenging than most of them had expected.
Parishioners broke ground for the new church in late November 2003. An early morning blaze on April 26, 2004, destroyed the building that encompassed the parish’s worship space, social hall and classrooms—a building built by hand in 1983 by the Glenmary priests who founded the parish and parishioners. A temporary tent put up in which to celebrate Masses was blown away by a hurricane later that year.
Parishioners, however, chose to focus on the final product—their beautiful, bright, airy church, designed by Cleveland architect Bob Kirkland and built by the Ron Cantrell Construction Co. The church, which seats nearly 400, is designed after an 18th-century church in New Jersey, built in Prairie-Gothic style. The total cost of the project is around $1.65 million, according to Father Rudd.
Glenmary Father Ed Gorney served as pastor of St. Paul from 1988-1992 and said coming back to the parish, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2004, and seeing the new church gave him a “warm feeling.”
“It’s a beautiful structure. It’s a testament to what can be accomplished when a group of people come together,” he said.
Nell Baker, longtime parishioner, said she “can’t believe how beautiful the church turned out to be.”
“I love the cross and the baptismal font,” she said. “I just love the Lord, and I love worshipping Him. I think I’ll love it even more in this new church.”
Glenmary Father Frank Ruff has fond memories of the parish, which he founded in 1964. St. Paul began as a mission of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Blairsville but was elevated to parish status in April of this year. The first St. Paul pastor is now serving in Elkton, Ky., but said he wanted to “come back to see what God has done, and what he’s done is pretty amazing.” When he first voiced the idea of starting a Catholic church in White County, “plenty of people told me I was foolish, that there was no future in Cleveland,” he said. He remembers the small population of Catholics in Georgia at the time and the lack of ecumenical activity. He’s pleased to see how much both have grown.
“The church itself is stunningly beautiful,” he said. “I feel pretty pleased and fulfilled to see this.”
Father Rudd is also fulfilled.
“We feel very good about (the new church), but we also realize it is just a place, and now we have to figure out how to do even more ministry in that building,” he said. “You have to have a few prayers in it before it’s truly a church.”
His favorite aspect of the church is the sanctuary with the altar, the gleaming golden tabernacle and large suspended cross.
“Everything in the sanctuary is Christ-oriented,” he said. “There are no chairs behind the altar. The clergy chairs are off to the side where they should be. Christ is the focus.”
And despite all the hardships of building the church, Father Rudd knows that Christ has always been the focus at St. Paul.
“Everything worked out exactly as we hoped,” he said. “The people who belong are really excited. This truly is a community.”