By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published November 9, 2006
The simple white wood cross with “misión católica” painted in red letters that beaconed many poor Spanish-speaking immigrants to the doors of Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Doraville now stands before its new home in Lilburn.
The community moved to the Lawrenceville Highway building in June from the cramped converted warehouse in Doraville where the mission started in 1989.
Volunteer members worked throughout the summer tiling the floor, planting roses and other flowers, cutting grass and trees around the eight-acre property, setting down pews, whitewashing walls, and painting the new gym, which will also be used as a parish hall. Volunteers labored until 3 a.m. the day before the Sept. 16 dedication to make final preparations, suspending a crucifix bearing a dark-skinned Christ from the wood ceiling, slanting toward the congregation.
“It was very beautiful. They were rehearsing dances for the celebration, pulling everything together. They made all the costumes, the flower arrangements. It was very exciting for me as a pastor to see their joy and enthusiasm,” said mission administrator Father Fernando Molina-Restrepo. “They are really happy to finally have a church. That is something very special for all the members of the church. For me it’s been great to be with them in this particular moment of history of the mission. … For some it requires a little more driving and distance, but the spirit and joy of the people is just fantastic and wonderful. It feels great to be working with them and to see their thankfulness and happiness.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated the Mass of dedication. Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue, Father Molina-Restrepo, parochial vicar Father Arcángel Cárdenas-Martinez, director of the Office of Hispanic Ministry Father José Duván González, vicar general Father Luis Zarama, and several other priests concelebrated.
Young adult Eduardo Sanchez was among Father Molina-Restrepo’s helpers, and he and his family like many have followed the mission to Lilburn. Having lived in Atlanta about five years, he works in construction and volunteered his time in the afternoons and on weekends helping with everything from demolition to painting, and he said that when his apartment lease ended he decided to move from Doraville closer to the church in Lilburn. His mother Juanita volunteers in the marriage, eucharistic and evangelization ministries and in charity outreach.
“I help out the sisters when I have time. I just like coming here on Sunday and celebrating Mass. I try to help out as much as I can. When we moved it was a lot of hard work,” said Sanchez. “The new church is really nice. It’s good because there’s more space for more people, and everyone is going to be more comfortable.”
The over 6,000-member, all Spanish-speaking congregation drew people from around the archdiocese to its former site, and church leaders believe that in the more spacious facility they will be able to serve even more. The new church, formerly an Assembly of God facility, has about 14 classrooms, a large parish hall, more office space, a roughly 650-seat worship space and 250-seat chapel. Members are majority Mexican, but also come from Central and South America.
In the worship space several flags from across Latin America extend from the balcony, and to one side of the altar is a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The space with tan brick walls was redolent with the smell of fresh paint. Behind the altar is a teal blue stained-glass cross with a cross and crown within.
Parishioners fought for parking spots by the church and in surrounding business lots and packed into the yard in front of the beige brick church on the mild, sunny dedication day before processing inside. The lively celebration featured members performing traditional dances and dressed in indigenous costumes. One little boy wore a sombrero and a girl wore a long ruffled skirt and had red and green ribbons woven into her braids pulled on top of her head, while a lector wore a long white dress accented with a red shawl and carnation tucked behind her ear. The mission is named in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, who appeared several times as an Aztec princess to Indian peasant St. Juan Diego in 1531. Her image, which miraculously appeared on the peasant’s cloak or tilma, is displayed at the basilica in Mexico City.
Congregants squeezed into beige cushioned pews, including many with babies and young children and even a woman coddling a quiet puppy. The opening song was “Que Alegría” (“What Joy”) for the festive event. The nine choirs and musicians with maracas, tambourines, piano and guitar led the congregation in song, and the Mass included music composed for the occasion by Peter Faletti.
The archbishop delivered his homily in Spanish, acknowledging the community’s sense of pride in the new church and of “sentimental loss” as they leave their home of nearly two decades near the Doraville MARTA station.
But “the one constant is that the people who were the church there are invited to become the church in this new location,” the archbishop said. “The ‘stones’ that were the church in Doraville are to become the ‘stones’ that are the church in Lilburn. Transitions are never easy, but transitions in life are constant. We are all changing with each passing day, and we all need to remember in those changes what is vital, essential, and important and what is of lesser importance.”
He reminded them that their Catholic faith is what makes the church holy.
“This new facility has many more advantages and opportunities to serve the Spanish-speaking community, but it will only be as valuable as is the faith of the people who use it. The living stones of the faith of the people who gather here will be the ultimate blessing that will transform this facility into a sanctuary of hope, of faith and of love,” he concluded. “Our formal blessing today is an appeal to God that the church that gathers here will be blessed with growth, with harmony, with good fortune, and with joy. We make our prayer under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and under the patronage of Mary.”
The faithful stood to applaud his words of affirmation and his support of their mission. Later he rubbed holy oil into the wood altar to consecrate it and lit incense sticks in a bowl on the altar as pillows of smoke rose and enveloped the crucifix overhead, signifying prayer that will rise to God.
For the offertory procession musicians pounded drums and four men carried large white and yellow bouquets in gold pots toward the altar as a man dressed as an Indian adorned in costume with peacock feathers blew a horn. Dancers with colorful headdresses, sequined skirt and vests with Our Lady of Guadalupe images processed toward the altar. Mothers escorted children who placed roses in a basket. And after a build-up of intensity of drumming, suddenly the room grew quiet as dancers knelt before the altar.
Later the congregation sang, “Mother of the poor, the humble and simple, of the sad, and the children that always trust in God.”
Father Molina-Restrepo in closing thanked in Spanish and English all those who assisted with the move.
“In order to get here, there was lots of hard work, sacrifice and discussion and many, many, many meetings, many different decisions made. We all can agree that the end result of all that we went through will serve the community of Our Lady of the Americas and all those who come to visit and join us long into the future,” he affirmed. “We are ready to move forward, to serve the needs of God’s people. We have many more challenges and great experiences to encounter here as we continue with our mission to bring the good news of Jesus and welcome all who come to our doors seeking Christ.”
And he thanked the archbishop for his support. “Today I especially thank Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory. What a wonderful support he’s given me as a priest and administrator of this mission, as well as his genuine concern for this mission.”
The history of 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 movement 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 into warehouse space and began offering spiritual and social services including a job bank and English classes before relocating to the New Peachtree Road location in 1992.
The mission launched their fundraising campaign last fall and originally searched for land but soon realized that it would be difficult to find land and build a new church. So the archdiocese stepped in and purchased in late May the Lilburn church for about $4 million. Their new building underwent renovations by general contractor Lusk and Associates, and the former mission building was sold.
Peru native and founding member Flor Villanueva also “followed the church” and moved to Suwanee. “Everything is new for us. It’s beautiful, this house of God. We are coming here to say thank you for everything he gives to us every day, for our family. We pray every day. It’s part of my life in Christ.”
She is grateful for the leadership of Father Molina-Restrepo.
“It is incredible. We are happy because we worked hard to have this church here. I thank Father Fernando,” she said. “He believed we could do it and we did it.”
She added that “it’s far for some of them, but people are coming anyway. People are coming because they believe in our mission and in God.”
Carlos Osores, who wore indigenous dress including shell and jingle bell ankle bracelets, said that his family now comes here from Doraville and that his brother played the drums during Mass. He and some 60 other parishioners come from the same village in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. He’s grateful that his three children can learn the faith here as he did growing up. “It’s an inheritance we have from our ancestors.” He was drawn back to his Catholic faith through the mission honoring Mary.
“We are from Mexico where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared. … She is our Mother,” he averred, adding that he lived previously in Houston but didn’t attend church much as “there’s not an ‘iglesia guadalupana.’”
El Salvador native Jorge Ferrufino also appreciates how the mission “welcomes Hispanics. The church is totally for Hispanics.” His family is back in Central America and being alone here and working as a painter he’s become more active in church. He has grown closer to God and changed in character through Our Lady of the Americas where he took classes to become a catechist and now is a Rite of Christian Initiation instructor and eucharistic minister.
Rod Padilla, a Puerto Rico native who played a zampoña (rustic flute) during the service, met his Peruvian wife at the mission. He stressed the importance of the mission continuing to serve as a beacon of light to the poorest immigrants as it was in Doraville by providing social services such as trade classes in plumbing and welding, driving instruction and support for the homeless. He is drawn to its core Gospel mission of serving the least and protested this spring against a harsh new Georgia law penalizing undocumented immigrants.
He hopes the archdiocese can maintain some Catholic presence in that area but is also glad to see new people coming to the Lilburn site, as Gwinnett County has about 15 percent of Georgia’s Hispanics.
As far as their identity and mission, he agrees with the archbishop that “the Catholic mission still is the same. We just moved.”
Father Molina-Restrepo reported that while it was difficult to count heads at the mission when many had to stand in the halls for Mass, they already appear to have more people as all Masses are full and spill into the chapel where there is a video screen. Last year they could only serve 700 children in religious education and had to turn away others. He’s pleased that they now have 926 children getting instruction throughout the week. He hopes to eventually start English classes, plus GED preparation through Gwinnett College. They continue their charity outreach.
“It’s the same leadership as at the other place, and now I’m encouraging (more) people to join in the leadership of the church,” he said.
While members have mostly very low incomes, they continue to sell foods and take collections to raise money to pay back the archdiocese. As they settle in, the priest is glad that they can move beyond the stress and uncertainty about their future they had in Doraville.
“I am very happy for the Hispanic community but also for the whole archdiocese that now we have a church dedicated to Our Lady and dedicated to the Patroness of the Americas as Pope John Paul II called Our Lady of Guadalupe. I’m thankful to God that I was part of this transition and part of this celebration and project,” he said.
And they’ll be ready as Mary draws more to their doors, where her statue stands by a fountain.
“There is a tremendous (Hispanic) population in the Gwinnett area. All the churches in the Gwinnett area are dealing with Hispanic ministry and Hispanic parishes, and there are plenty of people to be evangelized. Thank God we have more means to do it now, at least more space,” he said. “We’re already full. I don’t know how we are going to embrace everybody, but I guess somehow we’ll do it.”
To make a donation to the building campaign, send checks payable to Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Our Faith Legacy, 4603 Lawrenceville Highway, Lilburn, GA 30047. For information call (770) 717-1517.