By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 6, 2006
After worshipping in a converted warehouse near the Doraville MARTA station for over 20 years, the all Spanish-speaking congregation of Our Lady of the Americas Mission finally moved into a larger brick church building on Lawrenceville Highway the week of June 19.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will dedicate the new building, located in increasingly multicultural Gwinnett County, on Saturday, Sept. 16, at noon. The first Mass there took place June 23.
“People are excited since this is a bigger space and many people are coming,” said the priest-in-charge, Father Fernando Molina-Restrepo. “We have more space, as we were longing for, and this is the best way to respond to the many needs of our congregation and to provide social services as we do here. In the other place, we didn’t have space for religious education or even for the Masses—we had space, but not enough. So now this is truly a blessing, and we are very thankful to God and especially to Archbishop Wilton Gregory who has supported us in such a generous manner.”
The congregation, led by Father Molina-Restrepo, launched a fundraising campaign last fall and so far has raised nearly $1 million for the purchase of a former Assembly of God church building located on eight acres of land, which the archdiocese purchased in late May for about $4 million. With roughly 6,000 members, the congregation, which has been a haven for newly arriving immigrants in metro Atlanta, was extremely cramped in the dilapidated warehouse and even had to turn away children from its religious education program which last year served about 700. The majority of the mission’s members are from Mexico and Central America, but others are also from South America. It is considered a mission of the archdiocese rather than of a particular parish.
“It is just like the fulfillment of a dream that has been carried for 20 years now, almost for a generation. It’s just a blessing to have it happen so quickly. Everybody is so appreciative of the archbishop’s wonderful support,” said Maureen Harty, assistant to Father Molina-Restrepo, who got to know him at his former assignment and her parish, Christ our King and Savior Church in Greensboro. “It is going to vastly change their experience in every facet, both worship and social life and religious education.”
They inhabited their former home in a warehouse building on New Peachtree Road since 1992. Before that, the mission began in the windowless basement of a food store on Shallowford Road in 1989 with Sunday Mass, when some members of the Hispanic Cursillo along with two Franciscans from Mexico and Sister Pilar Dalmau and Carmín Maciás began renting this space to store clothes, food and furniture for the growing population. They moved to another warehouse space on New Peachtree Road and began offering spiritual and social services including a job bank and English classes before relocating to the New Peachtree Road location.
Father Molina-Restrepo, who was assigned to the mission last summer, had begun a fundraising campaign last September but after beginning to search for land realized that it would be very difficult to find land and build a new church. So “the archbishop stepped in and we were able to find an existing building, which is fantastic,” Harty said.
In days leading up to the move, Harty reported the new brick church was “swarming” with members volunteering with everything from pressure washing and landscaping to cutting down trees. The new building will undergo renovations over the next three months led by architect Jose Fernando Jimenez of Arcade Design Corporation, with assistance from mission volunteers.
Until the new worship space, which seats 700, is ready, members will worship in the building’s chapel, which seats about 250, with the overflow crowd watching from the social hall on a screen, as they did in the old facility.
Church leaders expect the majority of members, who drove from many different areas to the Doraville mission, to transfer to the new location off I-85. They also believe they’ll attract many new ones, as “there are about 50,000 living in a very small radius around the church,” Harty continued. The Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce reports that Gwinnett is the county with the highest Hispanic population in metro Atlanta, with 102,660.
“Everybody seems to be pretty excited about it. What we really are expecting is an onslaught (of new members) from the new location,” Harty said. “The main thing we have to do is get the renovations done so Mass can be held in the big sanctuary. The number two goal is to get all the classrooms ready for school this fall. We’ll continue with many good programs, and hopefully with the extra space we’ll be able to find ways to increase (services offered).”
Our Lady of the Americas will continue its fundraising campaign called “Nuestro Legado de Fe” (“Our Legacy of Faith”).
“They’ve done a beautiful job so far in nine months to raise this amount. In this community that is an incredible (amount),” Harty said.
In a letter to the people of North Georgia, Father Molina-Restrepo wrote of their gratitude and work to repay the archdiocese. “It is truly an answer to the prayers of all of us who dreamed of this. We are so grateful to the archbishop, and thank our Lord and the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe for guiding us in this project. We have much to do, but the people of the mission are hard at work. Their tireless efforts and generous contributions of treasure, time and talent are priceless.”
Daily Mass will be celebrated in the new location at 7 p.m. The weekend schedule stays the same, with Mass at 5 p.m. on Saturday, and at 8 and 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. on Sunday. The church is located at 4603 Lawrenceville Highway in Lilburn and can be reached at (770) 717-1517. To make a donation send checks payable to Our Lady of the Americas-Legacy of Faith to Our Lady of the Americas Mission at the new address.