By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 7, 2006
A beautiful new church building, fitting of its “country Catholic community,” marks a new chapter in the life of Fayetteville Catholics.
Parishioner Dan Murphy, a native New Yorker, likes how the new church retains its country feel.
“This is a blessing that the Lord has bestowed on us,” he said, seated in a pew before Mass. “This is a dream come true for this community. It almost brings me to tears because there was a lot of work and sacrifice on hundreds of people’s parts to make this a reality. It’s a very small community but it is growing and to be able to do something like this says lots about their dedication to the Lord.”
The new church building is “a big deal” to the community, he added.
“This is really for the kids, for the next generation, so our kids can get married and bring up their kids. … It’s a testament to our love for Our Lord.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated the Mass of dedication, the first liturgy in the new space, on the gray, balmy morning of Nov. 11. The roughly 360-family community, established in 1987, is located at 135 Antioch Road, south of Atlanta and north of Peachtree City, on the same property where they formerly worshipped in a multipurpose building. The quiet but quickly developing town of Fayetteville, which has a population of about 14,000, has Georgia’s oldest courthouse, a white brick structure with a clock tower built in 1825. It’s the seat of Fayette County, which grew 14.2 percent from 2000-2005 to 104,248.
St. Gabriel’s is the latest of several new church buildings erected in recent years in the growing Archdiocese of Atlanta. And it’s one more sign of the growing presence of Bible-carrying Catholics in both rural towns and sprawling cities across the historically Protestant Southeast, as the Baptist and Methodist churches in Fayetteville were both holding Sunday worship by 1859. The dedication booklet noted that “the new building elevates the visible presence of the Catholic Church in the Fayetteville area and provides a more traditional worship space invoking a deeper sense of reverence.” Father James Adams is pastor.
The new worship space at St. Gabriel Church enhances its connection with the countryside around the nearly two-centuries-old town of Fayetteville, as its large windows, stone walls and hand-carved Italian wooden corpus lead parishioners to experience God’s artistry in nature, and to prayer.
The church’s vaulted, wood-truss ceiling is complemented by expansive glass, which provides natural light to illuminate the limestone throughout the church interior and exterior. And the light-filled gabled end-walls lead worshippers to gaze upward. The church was built on a gently sloping landscape to preserve a grove of trees on the 16-acre property, which will serve as a meditation garden in the future.
The choir’s song list for the dedication Mass included “Song of St. Gabriel,” with the lyrics: “Blessed will our family be told by a hero of God. Archangel heralds the Son Blessed, blessed, blessed one.”
The archbishop opened his homily asking, “can you hear me now?” imitating a TV commercial with a person searching for cell phone service.
“There are some dead spots where they don’t seem to work, but cell phones all seem to work quite well in church,” he said with a smile. But people never manage to talk to God enough, although they find quiet space to pray at home, in a favorite garden, or on the beach, and “there are mighty and frequent prayers on golf courses.” Private prayer is important, the archbishop said, but prayer in the Lord’s house is incomparable.
“Here, around the table of the Lord, all of God’s children assemble to speak to the one Father, not as individuals but as a single family of faith,” he said. “The altar is Calvary made present in every age and for all time, and all hearts are united in Christ.” He praised their efforts to build the church.
“This new and beautiful place should be a reminder that you have been made new. The Father tells the people of God of St. Gabriel’s that ‘yes, my children, I hear you loud and clear.’ Today in a special way the Archdiocese of Atlanta rejoices with the people who speak to the Father in this house and we thank you for your generosity in providing this new house for the church.”
The archbishop thanked all those past and present who have served the church and “I thank you, Father Jimmy, for being such a good and devoted pastor,” he affirmed, to which the congregants stood in applause. They also stood to applaud Mike Jorgensen, the building committee chairman, who expressed words of gratitude. The archbishop rubbed chrism on the altar to consecrate it and later pressed oil in the shape of a small cross on the wood framing the glass windows on the side walls revealing the oak, maple and other trees outside bursting with orange and yellow highlights.
A cell phone then rang … the archbishop paused and people laughed.
Parishioners placed arrangements of red roses and white and pink lilies before the altar. Father Adams made closing words of gratitude recalling how just over three years ago he spoke with Jorgensen and they set the plan into action.
“It’s been a long process, but we’ve had great support, great help with all of you. I love you and I know you love me, and together we have done this. I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he said.
He recognized all project supporters, including most of his entire family who came from Florida, Alabama and elsewhere.
The general contractor for the 21,462 square-foot, two-story building was Leslie Contracting, Inc., of Fayetteville, and the architect was CDH Partners, Inc., of Marietta. The project cost about $4.5 million. The new church seats over 500 and includes a cry room. Mosaic tile Stations of the Cross punctuate the sidewalls of the nave. On the lower level, there are 12 classrooms, a music room, warming kitchen and nursery, and outside the narthex is a parlor for brides and families.
The former mission of St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro began holding Mass in 1987 at Fayetteville Elementary School and held religious education classes at a Presbyterian church. In 1991 the Franciscan Friars from St. Philip Benizi began serving the Fayetteville mission, and the archdiocese acquired the property on Antioch Road. The first pastor was Father Paul Berny. In 1995 the first building, the current multipurpose building, was dedicated.
After the dedication a reception was held in the brick multipurpose building, which will be remodeled. Parishioner Murphy recalled how he turned out for a landscape-the-grounds day, along with 75 others who responded to an e-mailed request for volunteers. He was deeply impressed by the dedication of Jorgensen who has been a true community and building project leader. “He has been the driving force, the person that really built it. It’s almost like this was his full-time job. The Lord sent Father Jimmy to pick him. He made this his life’s calling.”
Murphy hopes that as the church grows and expands it will remain a small community parish.
“I like the fact that they sing off key occasionally. I moved out of New York to get away from the big crowds and the formalness of religious observance. I wanted more of a country, intimate family setting. Father Jimmy is very good with teens and brings people together.” His wife, Debbie Murphy, is Jewish, and the family also worships together at a local synagogue. She likes the new church’s simple elegance and finds a sense of peace and welcome in the community.
“I’ve always felt like one of the family,” she said. “It’s a magnificent (new building), but it’s more the people in it.”
Operations manager Jim Winkler was overcome with emotion as he reflected on the vision and loving spirit of the late Father Joseph Beltran, who lead the parish from 1992-93.
“It’s a vision of his, and I knew it would happen one day and become a reality. Anything he did you wanted to be a part of it. He’s the reason I’ve been here 15-16 years. He was such a dynamic person and a very holy man,” he said. “It’s quite an engineering marvel that Father Joe would be very pleased with if he was still here.”
He added that in the past they only had a couple of weddings a year at the church, but that following the dedication people were already booking their weddings in the new church.
Gerald Williams served alongside his son, Kyle, and other Knights of Columbus in the honor guard during the ceremony. Williams is a founding member of the Father Beltran Assembly 2606 and past Grand Knight and a eucharistic minister and lector with his wife, Gwen. He said their Knights assembly staffs a homeless shelter monthly, cleans along the highway, holds a newcomers breakfast together with youth Squire members, and provides other help. He likes the parish’s warm spirit. “Down here, we hug people; everybody knows everybody,” said Williams. “We love it down here.”
He believes that in the new church, complete with kneelers, adults can “start training (youth) and teach them some reverence and how to behave in church.”
Building chair Jorgensen had moved to the area with the Army at Fort McPherson and retired in 1988 as a colonel. He retired from his civilian job in April, after which he was able to devote more time to the project. His mother, Virginia, and sister-in-law, Kay, traveled from Nebraska for the celebration. Wearing a suit with a white carnation pinned to the lapel, he recalled learning through the project that one must always keep one eye on the future. After all, the new church building is just phase one of a 15- to 20-year master plan, and Jorgensen noted that “the biggest fear would be that we develop an attitude that this is all we have to do.”
“The reality is that it may slow down but you never really stop because you want to keep planning for the future. We have a whole list of projects. You can never lose sight of where we want this place to be in 15-20 years.”
He now feels a “sense of relief” to have fulfilled his commitment to Father Adams and completed phase one. He took on the challenging project out of a sense of gratitude for all his family has been given.
“We have a lot to be thankful for, and this is one way of giving something back,” he said.
It was rewarding in “working to bring it to completion, doing something that will have long-term, lasting value/importance and not just be another building. During construction, we were told several times we built a 200-year-old structure … something that will stand the test of time. I truly believe it will be such a structure.”