By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published October 20, 2005
The steeple of St. Mary’s Church blends into the Rome skyline and provides a landmark not only for Catholics in the city, but for all who visit the town.
The height of a 12-story building, St. Mary’s steeple represents more than just aesthetically pleasing architecture. It is a symbol, a hallmark of the dedication and determination of Catholics in the area who began a small but mighty group and have become a vital part of the Rome community, providing hospitality and a warm welcome with a Southern accent.
This year St. Mary’s Church is celebrating its 75th anniversary. In late June, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory visited the parish to mark the important date in its history.
There were very few Catholics in Rome prior to the Civil War. However, the number of families gradually grew, and in 1874 they were able to build a small wooden church on East Court Street, which is now East 1st Street. This church served the Catholic community for over 45 years.
No priest was stationed in Rome during those years, but from time to time missionary priests came to Rome to celebrate Mass and the other sacraments. At the urging of a Rome native, Hannah Fahy (later to be known as Sister Peter Claver), the bishop of Savannah raised St. Mary’s to the status of a parish and appointed Father Joseph Cassidy, one of the few priests in Georgia at that time, as the first resident pastor. Father Cassidy built the present church in 1930 at a cost of $30,000.
Designed in 1929 by Michael McInerney, a Pennsylvania-born architect who was a monk at Belmont Abbey in North Carolina, St. Mary Church was originally conceived with a steeple to the right of the entrance. A rendering showed where the architect envisioned it. Most likely cost prevented it from being done at the time the church was built out of Stone Mountain granite and dedicated in May 1931. The steeple was added in 1998.
George Cato, a lifetime parishioner of St. Mary’s, is a living almanac. Cato, 79, can rattle off the important dates of St. Mary’s like he can remember the essential dates of his own life.
“It helps me to be a part of the culture of the church,” he said.
Cato was married in St. Mary’s, and his four daughters were educated at St. Mary’s School, which was opened in 1945.
Cato will also be quick to say that the whole church changed after 1950 when the General Electric Corporation moved into the city, bringing workers from other parts of the country.
“Of course there are also lots of retirees who moved here,” he said.
The church now has over 1,000 families, said the pastor, Father James Miceli. Cato said he is glad that the church has maintained its old world charm.
“We’re not one of those modern churches in the round,” he said. “There is still that sanctity of the old church.”
Throughout his many years as a parishioner of St. Mary’s, Cato has served as an altar boy, an usher and on various committees. He is proud of the history of the parish and proud to be a part of it.
“St. Mary’s is now a major force in the community,” he said. “It’s grown from practically nothing to (over) 900 families. From the smallest church in the 1920s to now, there have always been strong people. The people of St. Mary’s have always met the challenge.”
Part of the challenge now at St. Mary’s, as in many parishes in the archdiocese, is the great influx of Hispanic parishioners. Father Miceli, who has served as pastor since 1990, has tried to meet that challenge head on by going to Mexico every summer to study Spanish. He also celebrates Mass each Sunday in Spanish at 12:30 p.m.
“This is a diverse parish,” he said. “Serving our Hispanic population is a challenge, but it’s also a great joy.”
Father Miceli loves living in the town of Rome and said that his parish has many things to offer.
“This is a wonderful community,” he said. “Rome itself is a pretty vibrant city.”
Caroline Wacker and her late husband were so attracted to the city of Rome that they followed their children here in 1976. Wacker’s son had been in the armed forces and had settled in Rome. After many visits, the Wackers decided to move to Georgia from their home in New Jersey.
“We liked the weather, and really liked the change of season,” she said. “Flying down twice a year to visit just wasn’t enough.”
Wacker immediately became involved in St. Mary’s.
“I kind of liked the smaller church because I got to know more people,” she said.
Her entire family was involved not only in the parish but in the greater Rome community, volunteering in so many ways they received the “Family of the Year” award in 1989 from the Georgia State Council of the Knights of Columbus.
Wacker, now 89, continued to work in the soup kitchen of one of the Baptist churches in Rome.
“I don’t like to sit still if I don’t have to,” she said.
It is St. Mary’s, she said, though, where she feels most at home.
“When we have our get-togethers there, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t speak to anyone,” she said. “The people at the church are very outgoing. There is always a large turnout for events. That’s one of the first things I liked when we moved down here.”
She credits Father Miceli for helping the church to grow. In 1999 under Father Miceli’s leadership, the church was expanded to include a right and left transept on either side of the altar and seating was increased from 270 to 425 people. A new high altar, 14 new stained glass windows, a new organ and pews were also placed in the church.
“This is a wonderful parish up here, and Father Miceli has just done a great job,” Wacker said. “I know there are lots of nice things around here, but I haven’t seen anything that would make me want to leave Rome.”
Carol Black, who has been a parishioner for 15 years, served as the youth director for seven years and has served as the church secretary for the past five years. The parish is a family, she said.
“Most people aren’t from Rome but are from other places,” she said. “When we moved here, we were immediately welcomed by this huge group of people who tell you where the best doctors are and where to shop.”
“We don’t really have family here. Our church family has been our family. We have celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, all the holidays with our church family,” she said. “We’ve grown here in Rome with our church family.”