By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 15, 2005
After Father Luis Zarama accepted the invitation from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to serve as a vicar general for the archdiocese, he prayed a novena to St. Therese of Lisieux in preparation for the move from his beloved parish of 10 years, St. Mark’s Church in Clarkesville.
According to tradition, a novena to St. Therese is answered when one receives roses. Father Zarama received his affirmation to go forth at a farewell Mass April 23 with support from the St. Mark’s community, which showered him with no fewer than four dozen yellow and red roses.
“I prayed to her that I need help in my new assignment,” said Father Zarama. He has always had a special admiration for the Carmelite saint, known as the “Little Flower,” who was born in 1873 in France and who strove to live simply with great love until her death at age 24.
A native of Colombia, Father Zarama was the first Hispanic priest to serve as a pastor in the archdiocese. He is glad now to serve the entire church of North Georgia in his new position but did struggle with mixed emotions upon leaving the parish that has become his second family in Georgia.
He felt affirmed in his decision at the farewell Mass when children and teens brought forward roses and gave him a hug. The priest then told the congregation that he had privately prayed the novena to St. Therese, who is symbolized by roses, and said she would shower the world with them after her death. The priest was deeply moved by the Mass.
“All these children came with roses, and I thought that is a sign that (she’s saying) ‘I am listening to you.’… I thought it was so beautiful that they came up, not only the little ones but the teenagers. Their affection, what that means for me, was beyond what I can express in words.”
Mary Ruth Jones, director of religious education, recalled that Father Zarama “was overwhelmed by the number of roses. … It was powerful and all the pictures are of him crying. … He was holding it all together until the kids started to say goodbye.”
Father Zarama’s reaction moved the entire congregation, she added. “He had such a good relationship with the young people. … It was very moving to see how many lives he touched in 10 years here.”
The English-speaking community had a party for him in the social hall April 18 and then another Mass April 25, the feast day of St. Mark, while a Hispanic fiesta was held April 23 along with celebrations in the mission of St. Helena’s in Clayton.
“It was two weeks of non-stop partying,” Jones said in a phone interview. “The whole parish had the opportunity to say goodbye to him over the course of four weeks.”
Shortly after being named vicar general, Father Zarama had said of his service at St. Mark’s, “It has been 10 extraordinary years in my life as a priest that has taught me through my people of the parish the greatest lesson of love. And it is where I learned more profoundly the real meaning of priesthood.”
The parish has about 300 Anglo families and several hundred Hispanic families, the majority of whom are Mexican followed by a large number of Guatemalans. Father Zarama, who came to the United States in 1991, was ordained by Archbishop John F. Donoghue in 1993 and became a U.S. citizen in 2000, led the parish in a building project to construct a new church that was dedicated in 2003. He also served as priest-in-charge of St. Helena’s Mission, about 27 miles away in the mountains in Clayton, where 10 acres have been purchased and efforts to build a new church are underway. As a bilingual and bicultural vicar general, he will oversee the offices for Hispanics, African-Americans, priests, deacons and pro-life and AIDS ministries.
A canon lawyer, Father Zarama has also served as an assistant vocations director for the archdiocese and in the Marriage Tribunal as defender of the bond, and is a member of the Priest Personnel Board for the archdiocese. He and the other vicar general, Father Joe Corbett, are the closest advisors to the archbishop and chief administrators working in the Chancery.
The Spanish-speaking community held a farewell fiesta April 23, where they presented him with gifts and a Mexican feast with plenty of cake, tamales and a mariachi band. That same day he also headed over to St. Helena’s, which also has both Anglo and Hispanic communities, for another party there.
Jones said that “he brought the Spanish-speaking community into a real sense of belonging in this parish. He moved easily between the two communities. … Over the years we’ve gradually added more bilingual services. (The Hispanic community) has just grown and grown.”
Asilda Schuster assists Mexican-American Sister Laura Vasquez, a Missionary Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in St. Mark’s Hispanic ministry. Schuster said that “I could talk with Father about anything” and that “he was a wonderful priest for our community. He’s very friendly and humble all the time.”
Sister Laura also said he will be deeply missed. “He’s a spiritual father and very friendly and even with so many Hispanics he has time for each one of us, very humble and nice.”
Jones saw that Father Zarama loved being a priest and was very giving and genuine in expressing his emotions. She and the entire parish will miss him but are happy for him that he’s been asked to take on such an important role in service of the church.
“When he left, there wasn’t a dry eye because he really became part of the community, became so well loved. We feel like we’ve lost a member of our family,” she said. At the same time “we’re thrilled for him. He’s going to bring all that sense of joy and love right downtown to his work.”
St. Mark’s is welcoming their new pastor, Father Abel Guerrero-Orta, this month. On Aug. 10, Archbishop Gregory will formally install Father Guerrero-Orta, who is from Mexico. This will be his first pastorate.