By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 4, 2006
For a 48-year-old Atlanta parish with barely any meeting space on its property except for its parochial school, Immaculate Heart of Mary Church has served the parish and archdiocesan community remarkably well.
It educates through an active social justice committee, gave birth to the vibrant, multicultural Cursillo retreat movement across North Georgia, has welcomed the Hispanic community for decades, and holds perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as well as many more ministries to edify the community and demonstrate the Gospel connection to compassionate service and hospitality.
So members of this diverse, bilingual parish on Briarcliff Road just off of I-85, whose rich mix of members range from the working poor of the Buford Highway corridor to physicians and scientists with Emory Healthcare and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are definitely ready to build on that legacy and construct a new church to enable them to expand and develop services to the church and larger community. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a bilingual Mass April 29 attended by over 500 members. Concelebrants included Father James Schillinger, the pastor, and parochial vicars Father James Sexstone and Father Carlos Quintero, assisted by Deacon James Stewart. Parishioners carried in large banners draped with bells and white and gold ribbons, and hymns of thanksgiving filled the air in English and Spanish. A choir of 40 voices accompanied by flute, violin, drums and hand bells swelled in the original church built in 1958.
The archbishop in his homily spoke of how during this season of Christ’s Easter glory, the faithful are asked to come to a deeper understanding of their own call to “follow Him to risen glory” by carrying those crosses that are uniquely their own, which at times involve suffering and struggle but lead to wisdom and strength.
“This evening, Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish celebrates a triumph in your parish history—but one that came after a long period of study, trial, conversation, negotiation and generosity,” he said. “I am sure that this triumph costs much in terms of the sacrifices that people have made and will continue to make in order to build a house for the Church. I congratulate all of you and especially those who have been directly engaged in this project. May the Lord bless all of your efforts with His kindness and may God who has begun this good work in you bring it to fulfillment!”
Later, beneath an arch of gold and white balloons on the spot where the future church’s front doors will be, the archbishop led an outdoor ceremony to break ground for the project. Archbishop Gregory prayed for the project and blessed the site with holy water. He broke ground and invoked God’s favor upon the project.
“Whenever we look to the interests of our neighbor or the community and serve them, we are, in a sense, God’s own co-workers. Let us pray for His help through this celebration, my brothers and sisters, that God will bring this construction to successful completion and that His protection will keep those who work on it safe from injury,” said the archbishop.
Next to break ground was Father Schillinger, wearing a gold hardhat and wielding a gold shovel. Eight people representing the building committee, pastoral council, finance council and many of the parish ministries also took part in this festive ritual. Others gathered included IHM school principal Tricia DeWitt, parish Boy Scouts in uniform, and many enthusiastic project leaders and supporters from the parish. The congregants recited from their Forward in Faith Campaign Prayer asking God to bless the building of their house of prayer.
“Here will be reflected the mystery of the church. Here will the waters of baptism overwhelm the shame of sin. Here will your children be fed at the table of Christ’s body. Here will the poor find justice, the victims of oppression, true freedom,” they recited.
Afterward attendees enjoyed a reception with music by a mariachi band.
Among building committee members gathered for the groundbreaking was 42-year member and 25-year parish secretary Louise Pratt, who is pleased the project is finally underway.
“I’ve been very anxious to see it get started, and I hope I live long enough to be a part of it. It’s a very exciting time.”
A parish committee initiated by former pastor Father Fred Wendel began studying the feasibility of the project about six years ago, and when Father Schillinger was assigned to IHM about four years ago he named a building committee, led by Barbara Riley, to proceed with the project. Most of the building committee members are long-time parishioners and “have experienced the crunch we’ve experienced on a regular basis,” noted Father Schillinger.
One of the biggest needs that was identified was to create more meeting space. Currently they have to borrow space from Immaculate Heart of Mary School, located on the same campus, which is not the ideal situation for schoolteachers and students, he said.
“One of the biggest needs we have is for classrooms. There is virtually no meeting space on the property except for the school,” Father Schillinger said.
This is the pastor’s first major building project and his first pastorate. He described IHM as a “wonderful family” of about 1,500 registered households that is very unpretentious and warm in its service to Christ. It began with about 400 families in 1958.
That humble spirit shows forth as one enters the church, where off of the current vestibule the faithful can kneel before a statue of Mary and light a votive candle. The simple church, which has a wooden crucifix and many other wooden accents, also welcomes a youthful, energetic Hispanic community for four Masses each week. The church has 120 Anglo and 300 Hispanic children in its religious education program.
“It’s a wonderfully diverse and rich parish, and—the Hispanic kids—there are hundreds of kids in religious education. They are bumping into each other they are so tight.”
The pastor said that planners have managed to overcome many bumps along the way. Among those, they originally planned to build the new church into the parking lot but determined that that would be too costly, so they decided to build the same church farther back from the road.
“It’s a lot of work, of meeting, a lot of anxiety, a lot of hard work and frustration, but it’s also very exciting and will help the parish become a better parish and a more active parish where the people can be together,” said Father Schillinger. “It will give us a place to party together and play together and right now we are tripping over each other.”
The project, led by architects CDH Partners, Inc., will involve converting the 550-person worship space into a parish hall with additional meeting space. Furthermore, they will build a new 800-seat church, which will be made of brick to contribute to the uniformity with the other brick buildings on campus.
“We’re making a strong effort to have uniformity of appearance,” said the priest.
The current parish hall can’t hold more than 60 people comfortably and has only a few meeting rooms and religious education office space. It will be converted into the administrative office space, as currently some offices are located in the rectory building, which hinders collaboration between religious education and other staff members. In the new church, the main floor will have about 13,000 square feet while the lower level will have an additional 3,000 with gathering space for meetings, overflow space and a nursery.
The new church will have a traditional appearance and the interior will have an apse behind the altar and baptismal font in the vestibule, with other details still being ironed out by the sacred space subcommittee. This summer, work is expected to begin on the parish hall. The rectory/office building will be demolished and it will later be determined whether a new rectory will be constructed on the 13.5-acre grounds or whether town homes will be purchased. The pastor noted that the current setup offers priests little privacy or separation between work and personal space.
“It’s good to get out of the building you work in” and go to another building, as in the current setup he rises and goes to work down the hall, with employees arriving for work as “you’re sitting there having breakfast,” he said. “Everything is dated and the rectory is beat up because it’s been used so heavily. (The church) needs a facelift.”
Business manager Paul Tooher said that as they began the project a few skeptics commented that they’d be lucky if they got a million dollars or so out of the parish, but they’ve been delighted to see that 69 percent of the registered members have contributed so far. Now in the second year of their three-year campaign, they’ve raised $2.6 million, and with pledged amounts added in the total is $3.8 million. They expect to collect a total of about $4 million when factoring in contributions of non-registered members and other supporters of the parish. The entire first phase is expected to cost about $7.2 million and may take a year and a half.
“The community is completely involved and has been involved in this process. I think we raised more in the capital campaign for this work than has ever been raised at IHM—from my understanding—ever,” he said. “It was just a huge success. This community is completely behind it and very excited.”
Father Schillinger said he’s grateful for every donation, and commended the Hispanic community for its fundraising efforts in holding sales of Hispanic foods between the Sunday Spanish and English Masses. “They’re out there cooking tacos and fajitas and will give us a thousand bucks a week.”
Phase two of the project is still being planned, but is expected to include remodeling the exterior of the current church/future parish hall, and building another building between the future church and existing school building. It will contain several classrooms and include meeting space. It is expected that this summer the parish will start gathering for Mass in the school due to construction. “Mainly, the parish will be able to hold six to eight things simultaneously—we can’t do that (now).”
The priest reported that the parish school is almost at capacity and is doing very well, but he believes that the larger and improved worship and meeting space will benefit it as well as the church. He also noted that the parish has been growing as young couples move closer to the city, and he expects they’ll increase in membership about 10 percent following the building project.
“We have the school doing very well. That brings in lots of young families.”
IHM communications coordinator Tracy Moore said that the day following the groundbreaking ceremony, the archbishop returned for a reception for confirmation that was held outside because all other rooms were booked.
“Because the Holy Spirit was present in such abundance, we had perfect weather, but outdoor venues are truly ‘living on the edge’ in terms of adequate meeting space,” she said. “We’re very excited about a new church that will allow for gathering and worship that will enhance our liturgical life together. The new parish hall will allow for adult gatherings that will range from catechetical learning to community building. A new era for IHM!”