By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 14, 2006
With the nave’s iron crucifix shaped like an anchor and wood rafters resembling the hull of a ship, Our Lady of the Assumption Church embarks on a new phase of its voyage of faith as it begins the second year of ministry in its elegant Gothic church.
New families as well as longtime and reconnecting parishioners have embraced the reverent ambiance of the new church, which marked the one-year anniversary of its dedication on Nov. 4. The Brookhaven parish is set in a peaceful, sylvan neighborhood tucked off Ashford Dunwoody Road. In the past year membership has increased by about 24 percent to over 1,160 families.
“We’ve had tremendous growth,” reported Linda Javadi, director of stewardship and development. “What was an older parish now has a very young face and a cultural face with the Indonesian community.”
On Nov. 1 Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated the Mass of Installation of the church’s new pastor, Father Jim Duffy, SM, who served previously as a parochial vicar since 2000.
The installation reflected the presence of the Indonesian ministry of six years with some readings and prayers in Indonesian. And it reflected OLA’s ecumenical spirit, as guests included clergy from neighboring Christian churches. The parish for many years has participated in ecumenical Easter sunrise and Advent services. The church Dec. 9 also held an Advent door-to-door mission where teams invited Catholics and other neighbors to their Christmas Masses. It is also planning in the new year to begin hosting those in the local Hispanic community who need a parish home.
Father Duffy is grateful to have “inherited” the new church building and for the leadership of former pastor, Father James McGoldrick, SM, who carried the project to fruition.
“Father Jim McGoldrick wanted to pull his hair out for a while—there were all kinds of delays,” Father Duffy said. “The final result was indeed a beautiful, traditional style of church edifice, but still in many respects a very warm place to worship, and the atmosphere is certainly conducive to prayer and for worship and for that I’m certainly grateful—as we iron out the bugs in the sound system.”
The 740-seat church and Moylan Hall, the parish hall named after the church’s first pastor, the late Msgr. Joseph Moylan, are the realization of a long-awaited dream for the faith community founded in 1951. Initial construction on property purchased by the archdiocese began with the erection of a school chapel building and a convent for the Sisters of Mercy. OLA School opened in 1952 with 176 students. Construction began on worship space in 1957; the intention was that what was built would later be converted into a gymnasium, but that never happened. In 1979 the parish began renovating the space, which was dedicated in 1981. Then in 1989 the parish renovated the parish hall, rectory and former convent.
In 1999 the parish formed a building committee and began fundraising. The old church was demolished, and building began in June 2003. But then one of the nearby homeowners questioned whether the plans for the new church were in violation of zoning laws in DeKalb County. Construction was halted at the end of 2003 as the matter was debated in court, finally beginning again in May 2004 after plans were changed. Parishioners meanwhile worshipped for about two years in the school’s gymnasium.
The new church and parish hall were dedicated on Nov. 4, 2005, at the center of the lush 10-acre property, where the school, offices and rectory are also located. The parish hall also includes space for the new preschool for 2- to 3-year-olds, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and a youth room.
The architect for the $11 million project was C.D.H. Partners and the general contractor was Evergreen Construction. Co-chairs of the building committee were Harry DeMeza, John Rhett and Jim Bligh.
“Fifty-six years later we finally got our church,” said Rita O’Brien, the former 17-year parish director of religious education. She has found that worshipping in their new church “just makes you feel uplifted.” The building “is supposed to represent the inside of a ship because the church is called the bark of Peter,” reflecting the origins of the fisherman turned apostle.
All church materials are natural, she said, and the space is replete with symbolic detail. The Gothic style is characterized by features including pointed arches and an emphasis on vertical design. The interior resembles the hull of a ship to suggest the pilgrim church. The anchor relates to how, in the early church when Christians were persecuted, they displayed anchors on their house doors instead of crosses to reflect their faith.
In the west transept, a rose window depicts all nature praising God, including a galaxy, DNA strand and an amoeba, surrounding a half moon/half sun. In the east transept another window shows people of all races and nations singing praise—including a few OLA students in uniform—surrounded by a circle with a chalice, grapes, bread and wheat. A window behind the altar features angels playing instruments surrounding an eye encased in a triangle surrounded by rays of light, the all-seeing God.
There are other points of interest in the meticulously planned new worship space: the paschal candle holder with a serpent representing how in the kingdom even the snakes are in God’s service, the massive wooden ceremonial “doors of life” with biblical scenes in cast bronze relief modeled after 1,000-year-old doors in Italy, and stained glass windows illustrating mysteries of the rosary. Also in stained glass are the coats of arms for Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Archbishop Gregory. The baptistery has eight sides, an ancient design symbolizing resurrection as the eighth day of creation. The altar made of granite and wood holds a relic of St. Peter Chanel, the patron saint of the Marist Society, which has staffed the parish since 1965.
Two side chapels in the ambulatory with hand-forged iron grills provide space for private prayer. Fourteen marble and gold relief mosaic Stations of the Cross used by the parish since the 1950s punctuate the walls. There is also a daily chapel located off the west ambulatory, arranged in a monastic choir style with the altar in the center. There, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., with a Holy Hour from 7 to 8 p.m.
On the exterior of the beige brick building, the church’s stained-glass image of Mary wearing a crown with stars within a red circle quietly glows at night around the parish entrance. Nearby a memorial garden with purple pansies and pink roses has engraved bricks in memory of loved ones, benches for meditation and a plaque in Indonesian and English with the Our Father. And Mary’s words on the archway of the wood entry doors, “My Soul Magnifies the Lord,” resonate throughout Brookhaven, calling friends and neighbors to holiness.
At a reception in Moylan Hall following the pastor’s installation, Javadi recalled how the neighbor’s dispute with the designs forced them to redesign, shifting from a very modern to the Gothic style. “It changed, and out of all these hassles came this beautiful facility with a Gothic look nobody ever dreamed of.”
She said that when the community worshipped in the school gym some parishioners left, but now many are coming back along with newcomers. And the intown neighborhood is experiencing revitalization, as young families move closer to the city. As they join the church many are rejuvenated in faith through the “Christ Renews His Parish” program, which is in its 28th year at OLA.
“When a lot of new parishioners come through (the program), it’s just amazing to see that transformation. One guy on the stewardship committee … has got more energy than he knows what to do with. His wife said ever since Christ Renews His Parish he’s had a new outlook.”
The Indonesian Catholic community, “Komunitas Katolik Indonesia,” draws about 150 families to the first, third and fifth Sunday Masses each month. Indonesian Atlantans seeking a central location to establish a Catholic community asked OLA if they could use their church and were warmly welcomed.
“They’ve started to come more into the parish and do more things with the entire parish,” Javadi said.
The community in October had a program co-sponsored by Catholic Relief Services’ new Southeast Regional Office, and the OLA youth group, which provided education on CRS’s progress since the tsunami struck Southeast Asia in the areas of infrastructure, health care, education, basic needs and housing.
OLA’s diaconate program has always been active and now includes five deacons plus five men in formation. One of those men in formation, Antonius Anugerah, is a leader of the Indonesian community. He recalled how he was asked to consider the diaconate when “my pastor pulled me aside before Mass—I was coming in late—I didn’t even know what a deacon really was.”
Anugerah said they bring in priests for the Indonesian Mass from cities including Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. OLA always welcomes them to English liturgies, too, and they often have joint activities.
“The community here has been very gracious to us, welcoming to us,” said Anugerah, who came to the United States in 1982 and has a daughter at OLA School.
He, too, is enjoying the new worship space and recalled how the old church was set up “sideways with no center aisle.”
A parishioner of some 30 years, Dolly Azar is enjoying singing along with her husband and oldest daughter in the unique choir space located behind the altar, defined by a rood screen made of wood and forged iron.
“There’s no comparison from now to the way it was. It has always been wonderful (here), but having a new place to worship, a new church … it’s been beyond belief, it’s wonderful,” she said, adding that “the music is the best part of my church life. It is so uplifting for me.”
Parishioner Connie Mackey is a newer OLA member who also sings its praises. “This is a few blocks from home. When I came, I fell in love with the people, the atmosphere of friendship and family.”
A former Episcopalian, Mackey participated in a Protestant Bible study where she was inspired by the Christian witness of two Catholics in the group and later met with a priest. She had studied Scripture for many years and acknowledged that she could never have considered becoming Catholic prior to the Second Vatican Council, when the Catholic Church didn’t emphasize personal Bible study. But as she became interested in Catholicism, she began studying encyclicals and other documents of early church Fathers.
“I started studying about the Catholic Church about 12 years ago, reading Pope John Paul’s words,” said Mackey, whose husband remains Episcopalian. “I studied the Bible for years, but somehow it didn’t come all together for me.”
She began attending OLA before the building dedication so it was an added bonus to experience the “beautiful” church. She now serves as a eucharistic minister to the sick and dying and also with the Cenacle ministry of women serving the forgotten through activities such as an Advent toy and clothes collection for children of migrant workers.
The active parish has numerous other ministries, including a centering prayer group, Familia family ministry, St. Vincent de Paul Society, Habitat for Humanity, a Young Married and seniors groups, and a prayer group. It has a Meals on Wheels outreach, and the “Soupremes” meet every Monday from November through March to make 100 meals for the Central Night Shelter downtown. A mission team will head back to Mississippi Dec. 26 to help Gulf Coast hurricane victims, and the youth and parish council are collecting donations for them and for Families First.
In the area of education, Spring Hill College extension program has offered courses at OLA, and four six-week Bible studies are offered during the year, plus programs on other topics such as justice. There are 32 small communities that do studies of the Bible or another book, some of which have been together for over 20 years and meet in homes.
OLA’s caring spirit is captured in a note in a recent church bulletin from a 36-year parishioner after a surgery expressing gratitude for “be(ing) surrounded by so many loving people who would spare no effort to help in any way possible—prayers, expressions of concern …”
Nearly 30-year parishioner and seventh-grade OLA teacher Mary Baxter said that now the entire school with 480 students can actually fit in the church, plus parents and some parishioners, whereas before anytime adults would come children would have to sit on the floor. And now the school can hold weekly Mass there. They bring in priests from other parishes for Mass.
“It’s wonderful. Kids get so excited when their pastor comes,” she said.
Middle-schoolers give Sunday night tours of the church, explaining everything down to the Bible stories on the ceremonial doors. And students love picking out the OLA students in the rose window. Baxter’s students wrote essays about the church, too, “and were struck by the serenity of the church and the symbolism. … They were struck by the fact that when you went in there they felt like this is a place you could pray.”
As a eucharistic minister and lector, she’s found “when people come to the church you can feel a sense of reverence.”
“When you read there is an attentiveness,” she said. “It’s opened up our church not only for us but for the diocese. Visiting choirs come—the acoustics are so beautiful.”
Youth minister Anne Stephens, who grew up in the parish, appreciates how the church embraces its youth, who are involved in many aspects of parish life. And they love their new youth room and her new office in it where youth are free to visit her and bypass the main offices. There are 640 kids in the program, with sections for fourth- and fifth-graders, middle school and high school. Among their activities, youth recently collected 260 coats in a drive and regularly serve at the Central Presbyterian night shelter. Youth leaders pick topics for discussion, often related to current events such as immigration. Every year they hold a priest and deacon appreciation meal at Thanksgiving. The fourth- and fifth-graders meet once a month and recently made ornaments for women in a homeless shelter and will hold a book drive. She strives to speak authentically and humbly about faith, “to live it and be a good example but a very human and flawed one and loving them unconditionally.” She believes that even those who are less interested may later reap the rewards of the ministry.
“You never give up on children who aren’t as strong in their faith—you love them unconditionally. … You provide them a safe space.”
She also welcomes non-Catholics with her mission to represent Christ to all and recalled when she learned from the mother of one Baptist boy who was very active that he finally decided to get baptized—in his church. “At least he decided to become a baptized Christian, that was very powerful.”
She appreciates the support she finds from those she grew up with still at the parish composed largely of families, and hopes that now with more space OLA will add a young adult ministry or singles ministry.
Father Duffy, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., and an aficionado of theater, opera, symphony and ballet, is glad to take the reins at OLA and work alongside his dedicated staff. He said the parish strives to embody the Marist spirit of simplicity and service “without blowing horns about what we’re doing” nor being judgmental, noting that most of their volunteers come forward after making a Christ Renews His Parish weekend. The church also has a close relationship with nearby Marist School.
“Our big thing is reconciliation and compassion, to be compassionate in our work. That means very much dealing with our sick, elderly, those who are hurting, and the sacrament of reconciliation—that’s certainly our Marist spirit—not football, even though we hope they win.”
They have a long history of ecumenism with “our Protestant brothers and sisters” and, Father Duffy noted, “when we were in need of a church facility, we used a Presbyterian chapel for our daily Mass for a year and a half. That was really nice. We have really good relations.”
He has found the Indonesian presence to be a “terrific” addition. And they hope to establish a Hispanic ministry by February to serve those in the area who are not able to travel to the relocated Our Lady of the Americas Mission, which just moved from Doraville to Lilburn.
“That certainly is our game plan for our Hispanic brothers and sisters who live here. This is their parish, and we’re trying to gather our resources so that we can assist them in their faith.”