By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 20, 2006
Savannah Bishop J. Kevin Boland told attendees at a golden jubilee Mass for the establishment of the Atlanta Diocese that Georgia Catholics have come a long way since King George II chartered the colony in 1732 and declared that no “papists” would be allowed to practice Catholicism there.
“Thank God we changed that!” said Bishop Boland, his Irish brogue reflecting a slight Southern lilt. Wearing the gold ring of Georgia’s first Catholic bishop, who was installed in 1850, the current bishop of Atlanta’s mother Diocese of Savannah joined in the 50th anniversary celebration of the Atlanta Diocese on July 2. Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop Boland concelebrated the Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Pioneering early Catholics indeed didn’t let any royal decree hold them back as they journeyed south. Catholic farmers from Maryland and later French and Irish immigrants seeking greater religious freedom settled in Locust Grove, Ga., and built a log church named for the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1792. A cemetery still remains, and Mass is celebrated there annually on All Souls Day.
And many more stories of heroism, service, discipline and sacrifice followed, leading up to and following the establishment of the Diocese of Atlanta on July 2, 1956, and the installation of Bishop Francis E. Hyland, in recognition of the city’s growth after World War II. Atlanta was part of the Diocese of Savannah from 1850 until 1935, and then part of the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta until 1956.
Savannah Bishop Gerald O’Hara was installed in 1935 and frequently traveled by train to visit his “northern” Georgia flock in Atlanta, and was outspoken about his desire to build a sanctuary worthy of Georgia’s capital. He petitioned the Holy See to change Georgia to the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta, and opened Christ the King School in 1937 with the help of founding Cathedral members from the Smith, Spalding, Haverty, and Kane families. The Gothic, limestone Cathedral dedication in 1939 introduced the city to the pomp and splendor of the hierarchy as the Atlanta Journal reported of the Philadelphia cardinal’s arrival, “Catholic Great Arrives in Georgia,” and called the Cathedral “likely to rival Notre Dame in Paris for its lasting qualities.”
Deacon Lloyd Sutter helped to plan the 50th anniversary Mass of the Atlanta Diocese, just as he assisted as a senior at Marist School as an altar server at the 1956 establishment Mass. The new diocese at the time was made up of 71 North Georgia counties, had about 25,000 Catholics, 19 parishes, and Atlanta had just five Catholic churches. He recalls being awed by the pageantry. “For a kid that just grew up at Christ the King with a bishop coming up from Savannah once in a while, it was kind of a huge event.”
Deacon Sutter recalled how his Marist School class had 42 boys and Catholic, Protestant and Jewish cadets marched daily side by side at the former campus next to Sacred Heart Church downtown. Without the non-Catholics, the school “wouldn’t have survived,” he said. His father was also an alumnus of the school founded in 1901. “That’s why at Marist approximately a fourth of the class in the school they reserve for non-Catholics—out of gratitude.” With the small Catholic community five decades ago, “I don’t think there was any Catholic in the 1950s I didn’t know.”
The deacon also attended Christ the King School. At both “it was a small community, but the faith was intense,” and it led him to consider the priesthood and attend seminary before deciding on law school and marriage.
From 19 parishes in the fledgling diocese in 1956 to nearly 100 parishes and missions today, Deacon Sutter and others marvel at the growth of the Catholic Church in North Georgia. And nourished by the water of the Spirit, Scripture, a proliferation of programs in religious education and perpetual adoration chapels, the Church of Atlanta continues to build on that legacy.
Pastors, priests and parish leaders of the 19 parishes existing in 1956 were special guests at the jubilee Mass.
“It was the courage and hope they brought to the task of establishing of a new diocese that has made all the difference in the world. I welcome all the representatives of these 19 pioneering parishes,” that existed when the Atlanta Diocese was formed, said Archbishop Gregory at the Mass.
And he challenged attendees to continue in that same spirit. “The Holy Spirit has given us strength and determination to establish a vibrant community of faith. The Holy Spirit guides us as we welcome new members in the family of faith, welcoming people from all our cultures, of all races of humanity. We have grown in large part because we have been welcoming and hospitable to strangers that come from afar.”
One grateful Mass attendee was Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, a native of Macon who is director of pastoral care at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, Atlanta, and previously served as the first woman parish administrator in the archdiocese, at Sacred Heart Church, Atlanta, along with having held many other pastoral and educational positions.
“This diocese is very close to my heart, having served here the last 39 years,” she said.
Having grown up in the segregated South ingrained with prejudice and racial segregation even down to the newspaper obituary page, she reflected on how the church has grown spiritually since the 1960s and today is even closer to the spirit of the first apostles who boldly and energetically proclaimed the Good News to all the ends of the earth.
Atlanta Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan in the early 1960s “took the diocese to a new level in terms of his openness to all peoples here in the archdiocese, not only Catholics but all other faith traditions. He was well known in the whole area. … I felt he paved the way for all the changes in the church that were to take place,” she said. “I look at the present and the future and see how we’ve grown and followed the teachings of the church and Christ and in working so closely with all faith traditions and races and cultures. I’m proud to work in a hospital where the value and respect for each person is so important.”
“ (The apostles) went and preached to all nations. They weren’t limited to just a few. It’s not looking at differences but ways we are alike. I see that emphasis today.”
About 21 priests attended the anniversary Mass, including four who were serving in 1956—Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan, Msgr. Walter Donovan, Father Richard Morrow and Father James Harrison.
Msgr. Donovan was ordained in 1944 and, in a DVD made for the Atlanta jubilee year, he recalls how there were only isolated pockets of Catholics across the state, who struggled to persevere. It was the parish women who led the rosary and taught the children the catechism, he said, while priests visited about once a month.
“The strength of the community was in the women who worked so hard to maintain understanding of the faith and the practice of the faith. They were the ones who for many years solidified or kept the faith when there weren’t many priests,” he said.
Kevin Johnson, Ph.D., directed the Our Lady of Lourdes Church Choir at the Mass, and composed an anthem for the celebration, with a mixture of Gospel, soul, and traditional influences, entitled “All Time Belongs to Him,” the jubilee theme chosen by Archbishop Gregory.
In his homily the archbishop, wearing cream vestments with gold, said on that date in 1956 when Pope Pius XII issued a papal bull declaring Atlanta a diocese, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Marvin Griffin was Georgia governor, and William Hartsfield was Atlanta mayor.
“That papal decree would eventually receive considerably less attention than the fact that on the same morning Elvis released ‘You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog.’ The world was radically different at that time, but some things were so very much the same as they are now” regarding faith and family, he said.
At that time there were only about 30 priests, a “small but stalwart” group of men and women Religious, a handful of schools, but they carried on steadfastly, said Archbishop Gregory, who was installed in 2005. Bishop Hyland served as bishop of Atlanta from 1956-61, followed by Archbishop Hallinan from 1961-68, assisted by Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Bernardin from 1966-68. Atlanta Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan served from 1968-87, followed by Archbishop Eugene A. Marino, SSJ, from 1988-90, Archbishop James P. Lyke, OFM, from 1990-92, and Archbishop John F. Donoghue from 1993-2004.
The archbishop said the Mass was an occasion to prayerfully reflect on what God is calling each person to do to further strengthen the church, as the Holy Spirit challenges and inspires the faithful to respect human life from conception to natural death, to speak on behalf of the poor, the dignity of immigrants and those in prison and against racism.
And he marveled at the talent and zeal of those who have built the church of North Georgia.
“Who would have anticipated the incredible growth, transforming a modest southern city to a world class metropolis? God’s plans are always greater than our ability to predict. God’s plan is always greater than our fear … doubt … failing,” he continued. “What remains for us to do in the next 50 years? We are entrusted with the ancient and pioneering faith as were these 1956 Catholics. We are given the privilege of being heralds of peace and justice.”
Later poised choir member Sarah Johnson stepped forward and sang, “… for every mountain you brought me over, for every trial you have seen me through … for this I give you praise.”
Bishop Boland took the pulpit in conclusion and told the congregation that he came “like a mother visiting a daughter” and invoked God’s blessings upon the archdiocese “for the marvels that have happened in North Georgia over the last 50 years.” He presented to the archbishop a replica of the decree in calligraphy for the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta, and an album containing selected documents from the Savannah archives concerning North Georgia’s history over the past 150 years. They included minutes from a meeting of the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia, an organization “that did so much to break down prejudice that arose in the early 1900s against Catholics in the state of Georgia.” It was authorized by Bishop Benjamin Keiley in 1916 to combat prejudice, anti-Catholic propaganda and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. A stated objective was “to bring about a friendlier feeling among Georgians irrespective of creed,” and members wrote courteous, succinct letters in response to all inquiries.
He read a 1923 letter about the Marietta mission that stated “Marietta has never had more than 20-25 people in it for the past 25 years and in my opinion it will never have many more,” at which the congregation laughed.
“It’s an amazing privilege to be here. Blessings to you. May we continue to strengthen the faith together in the state of Georgia,” concluded Bishop Boland.
Atlanta was founded in 1847 after the Georgia legislature in 1836-7 called for the construction of more railroads around the state with a terminus to connect the various lines in what is now downtown Atlanta. With the growth of the railroad the settlement began to prosper and brought many newcomers, including Irish workers. A small Catholic mission was begun in 1845, and a small wooden building dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. While the church was spared when Federal troops destroyed most of the city at the war’s end, the community with Atlanta’s rapid postwar growth outgrew the building and dedicated the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1873, which remains the oldest standing building downtown. The Locust Grove church was relocated to Sharon in 1877 after families moved closer to the new railroad there, and Mass is still celebrated monthly at the Church of the Purification there, built in 1877.
By 1900 Atlanta had 89,872 people, and by 1950 the metro area had 997,666. Atlanta became an archdiocese in 1962 and from 1980 to 2000 the population more than doubled to over 4 million.
Relaxing at a reception following the Mass, Johnson, who is director of the Spelman College Glee Club, said he was deeply honored to compose music for the liturgy and chose verses from songs that have inspired his life such as “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” and from “What We Have Seen and Heard,” a pastoral letter written by the black Catholic bishops of the United States. The chorus text was taken from the prayer for lighting the paschal candle at the Easter Vigil. The Spelman College music department chairman strove to create uplifting, unifying music that transcends cultural barriers.
“It was a tremendous honor to be asked to do that. I just hope that folks can relate to it,” he said.
Attendee Jerry Zukauckas said after moving as an international tax consultant to Atlanta from England in 1996 he was impressed with the many committed Catholics he found here. With his wife’s encouragement he was inspired to get more involved. Later he felt a calling to attend an informational meeting on the permanent diaconate program and now is in formation as a deacon.
“It’s been wonderful. This community has been wonderful and has grown so much over the past 10 years—the whole diocese and Cathedral here. The Cathedral now has about 5,600 registered members,” he said.
Zukauckas also is parish administrator at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna and is impressed by the growth of their Hispanic ministry since 1998. Hispanics now make up over half of all registered parishioners.
“They have a wonderful priest, Father Jaime Molina. He is just amazing, and people love him. In the evening when I’m working late, Father Molina will be meeting with parishioners, and the place will be so packed in the meeting room people will be spilling outside,” he said.
Roscoe Adams moved to Atlanta in 1981 with IBM and attends Holy Spirit Church as well as St. Anthony’s Church, for which he designed a 100th-anniversary lapel pin. An African-American, he said his wife, who recently passed away, was white and they wanted their sons to be equally comfortable in both the predominantly black St. Anthony’s and mostly white Holy Spirit congregation, as while much progress has been made he believes Sunday morning remains the most segregated time in America. He was drawn to Atlanta’s strong church leadership, including Archbishop Marino becoming the nation’s first black archbishop and Archbishop Lyke being a beloved shepherd. He admired the leadership of Archbishop Gregory as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops during the unfolding of the sex abuse scandal, and he likes his genuine character.
“More than anything it was just his leadership of the church. I had a lot of admiration of how he handled it,” he said, while adding that as a convert he loves the pageantry and tradition of Catholicism that transcends the priests’ personality.
Msgr. Kiernan is one of the longest standing leaders in the archdiocese, coming from Boston to help in Georgia back in 1949. He didn’t experience any anti-Catholicism but felt a special vocation to build up the church.
“It was a big challenge because there were so few Catholics and so much work to do, separated for miles. … You did a lot of driving.”
In his second assignment at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he called the police one night when there was a prowler in the basement and befriended the officers and later began additional service as a police chaplain. He eventually founded and served as director and chaplain of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police and as chaplain of the Georgia State Patrol, DeKalb County Police Department and many other community service positions. He admired the leadership of the late Atlanta Police Chief Herbert Jenkins who supported him and oversaw the department’s racial integration in 1948 and Mayor William Hartsfield, who saw Atlanta needed to grow and was most responsible for establishing Atlanta’s airport. Msgr. Kiernan believes they acted wisely as they “spoon fed” the public by fostering peaceful, gradual, positive change in race relations. Furthermore he recalled “there was a lot of leadership from the Spalding and Haverty families” who “stood up to the plate” in helping to build the Catholic and larger community, from Archbishop Hallinan, and from priests who marched in Selma, Ala., for civil rights. He was editor of The Georgia Bulletin for 13 years and that provided “one place you could get some Catholic coverage,” he said, adding that WSB Radio broadcast from the Biltmore Hotel. Msgr. Kiernan in recent years served as vicar general under Archbishop Donoghue, who will be remembered especially for the opening of new Catholic schools.
“Atlanta has had a lot of leadership,” said the 81-year-old priest.
Deacon Sutter was a freshman at Marist when Msgr. Kiernan was at the Shrine. He also provided 30 years of lay leadership in religious education, including as a parish youth minister and RCIA instructor, as he practiced labor law, including a decade at King and Spalding, the firm co-founded by Jack Spalding in 1885, an early Catholic community leader and philanthropist.
Deacon Sutter is now senior administrator of the Department of Religious Education and Faith Formation and is glad to have helped implement the Second Vatican Council document on the laity that “essentially emphasized the obligation of people … by virtue of baptism to pass on the faith.”
“The most significant thing to happen since the Second Vatican Council is the energizing of the Catholic laypeople, young and old, to evangelize,” he said. “What you are seeing happen now is a product of the Vatican Council, whereas we used to depend on the priests and sisters.”
He’s gladdened by the brightening of the church’s light of love, justice and hope across North Georgia.
“I’m basically proud of the roots of Catholicism in Georgia and of the diocese that basically grew out of the Savannah Diocese and before that Charleston and before that Baltimore,” he said. Growing up in Atlanta “you couldn’t imagine in your wildest imagination anything like this happening.”
Sister Sheridan also praised the lay leadership.
“One of the things I really have appreciated more than anything in the early days since Vatican II is the organization of the Cursillo movement and the work and leadership of Father Richard Kieran in that work because it was through Cursillo that I truly believe we helped to form lay leaders in the church. … I think that was probably one of the most powerful movements” in fostering growth, she said, adding that the charismatic renewal has also helped people to express themselves spiritually and be touched by the Spirit.
As Archbishop Gregory affirmed in concluding the summer evening celebration, with God’s grace surely Catholics in the archdiocese will do even greater works for God’s glory in the next half-century.
“Happy birthday Atlanta! Let’s see what the next 50 years have in store. I’m sure it will be far more wonderful than any of us can imagine on this particularly warm and sticky July 2 evening.”