By BUD and JOAN ATTONITO, Special Contributors | Published October 6, 2005
On Sunday, Aug. 28, on a beautiful, clear day in the northeast Georgia mountain town of Clayton, nearly 400 people gathered for a truly special occasion. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated an outdoor bilingual Mass for the parishioners of St. Helena Church and their visitors. The setting for this, the fifth annual outdoor Mass, was a huge tent erected on property purchased for a new church building to be built in the future. St. Helena’s pastor, Father Luis Zarama, has remarked that the “stained glass windows” have already been provided au naturel because the mountain views are so spectacular.
Concelebrants at the 11 a.m. Mass were Father Zarama and parochial vicar Father Thomas Kurian. Daniel Lange served as acolyte. Also assisting were three young parishioners: Francisco Ruiz, who served as thurifer; D.J. Starzec, crozier bearer; and Froy Hernandez, mitre bearer. When asked how it felt to part of a Mass celebrated by the archbishop, 11-year-old Starzec said, “It was hot, but I enjoyed it and it was an experience of a lifetime.”
The Gospel, readings, and intercessory prayers were presented in both English and Spanish, as were the beautiful music selections from two choirs, led by Tom Davis and Salvador Torres.
Archbishop Gregory’s homily was based on the Gospel according to Matthew 16:21-27 in which Jesus responded to Peter’s comments by saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” The archbishop contrasted this reading with the previous week’s Gospel in which Jesus entrusted Peter with the keys to the Kingdom. He began his homily with the words, “Poor Peter!” and then went on to enumerate Peter’s strengths and weaknesses, relating those to the parishioners’ own lives and faith journeys. His warmth and encouragement permeated the homily. The solemnity of the day was punctuated throughout with joy as parishioners joined in praise and thanksgiving.
Before the final prayers and Benediction, Father Zarama expressed his thanks to Archbishop Gregory for coming to Clayton to be with his northern-most flock. Applause confirmed that those thanks came from all assembled.
Following the Mass was a cookout and covered dish luncheon during which the archbishop graciously circulated and greeted everyone. For most, this was the first contact with him, and all were impressed by his warmth and his obvious love and concern for his people.
A unique and heartwarming part of the archbishop’s day in Clayton was a stop, pre-arranged by Father Zarama, to call upon Clara Sibley, St. Helena’s oldest parishioner, who was unable to attend the Mass. When reached for comment several days later, Sibley said of his visit, “I didn’t believe it when they told me he was going to stop by. I didn’t even get dressed up. It was so superb that I couldn’t believe it! I told him that as a child I used to ride horseback on the land where the new church will be built and that I was baptized in a stream nearby there as a Baptist, but that I later corrected that.”
Located in Rabun County, St. Helena Church is a mission church that is currently conducting its Building Together campaign in order to construct a larger church to accommodate its growing population and its many seasonal visitors. Ron Spencer, chairperson of the Building Committee, was asked for his thoughts on the Archbishop’s visit and Mass. He responded, “It was beautiful. It will be so nice when we can build our new church on this very spot. I wish it could be now!”
In fact, all of St. Helena’s parishioners and clergy look forward with hope to another visit by Archbishop Gregory in the near future…when he comes to dedicate their new church.