Published January 25, 2007
The call came into the Gwinnett fire department on Thursday, Jan. 18, just before 6:30 a.m.—a small strip shopping center on Buford Highway was on fire. Fire trucks were dispatched minutes later to the building, which houses, among the small businesses, the Catholic mission of Duluth, church home to approximately 1,200 Hispanic Catholics in the area. The shopping center, Mooring Plaza, is located at 2856 Buford Highway near Old Peachtree Road in Duluth.
According to the fire department report, upon arrival on the scene “firefighters found heavy fire showing and flames through the roof” in the U-shaped building. They entered the building to battle the strong blaze “but were forced outside due to heavy fire conditions and the collapse of the roof in the center of the building.” Fighting the fire from outside the structure, the firefighters employed streams of water from multiple hose lines and two ladder pipes. About two hours later, with the efforts of about 40 firefighters, the fire was brought under control.
Three businesses, in addition to the mission, sustained heavy damage, and adjacent businesses suffered significant damage from smoke, heat and water. The shopping center was not open at the time of the fire, and no injuries were reported.
Because the fire involved a place of worship, the Gwinnett County Fire and Emergency Services—Arson & Explosives Section is being assisted by members of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as an arson K-9 unit from the Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner’s Office.
According to the report, “investigators have not yet determined the exact cause of the blaze but feel confident that the fire did not start in the Catholic mission.”
Investigators and firefighters remained at the scene until 4 p.m.
The mission administrator, Father Fernando Ruge Garcia, said that the mission was previously under the auspices of St. Benedict Church but since last June has been in closer contact with St. Monica Church, which is about a mile away. The mission’s parishioners packed into the rented church space in the strip mall every weekend to one of four weekend Masses. They rarely used candles because the space was so tight. During the week Sister Marta Herrera, RFR, staffed the mission from 2 to 8 p.m.
Father Paul Flood, pastor of St. Benedict Church, was one of the first people on the scene of the fire. His parish, he said, has offered “material, financial and spiritual help” to the members of the mission.
“At this point we’re just waiting for the diocese to determine the long term plan and let us know the needs,” Father Flood said. “Then we’ll help however we can.”
The community is meeting temporarily at St. Monica’s, which quickly added a 7:30 p.m. Saturday Mass and a 2:30 p.m. Sunday Mass—both celebrated by Father Ruge Garcia—as well as making arrangements for religious education on Saturday from 6 to 7 p.m.
Pat Chivers, communications director of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, attended the Saturday evening Mass at St. Monica’s and estimated there were 500 people there. She was struck by “how welcoming Father Jack Durkin and his parishioners were. They had people at the door welcoming the Hispanic parishioners, helping them with music.” Father Durkin, the pastor, also had the leaders of his parish ministries there to assist the people.
“They (the Masses at St. Monica’s) were added on the spur of the moment,” said Chivers. “It is temporary, but we think (it will be) at least three weeks.”
She said that Father Durkin has just “welcomed the community with open arms” in a warm display of hospitality and added that the Knights of Columbus presented a check to Father Ruge Garcia for the mission this weekend and will be doing more.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was determined that the “pastoral needs of the people” must still be met. In a letter read at Masses at St. Monica’s, the archbishop described the temporary plans for the mission’s parishioners and emphasized his concern for their wellbeing as a church community. “I wish to share my love and concern for you at this time of loss. With the facility and furnishings destroyed by fire at the Duluth mission, I assure you of my commitment and that of the Archdiocese of Atlanta to do everything possible to continue to meet your pastoral needs. We have begun the process of identifying a new location to serve as the temporary home for the mission and hope to secure a building in the Duluth area within a few weeks.”
The community, which consists of 98 percent Mexican and 2 percent Colombian and Puerto Rican immigrants, has many teens and young adults. The Colombian priest believes that there are many more people in the area who would come if there were more space, so he is busy working with Catholic Construction Services of the archdiocese to look for a larger space to either buy or rent in the immediate area of Buford Highway where many live and work.
He is grateful for the generous show of solidarity from both St. Monica’s and St. Benedict’s to support the mission in their relocation, as well as from non-Catholic churches in the area that have offered temporary space for free.
Father Ruge Garcia, who came from Colombia to the archdiocese about two years ago, was assigned to the mission last June. He said that they now have 10 groups receiving catechesis for first Communion and confirmation, and he’s trying to expand religious education in addition to instruction on the sacraments. He currently offers two programs for family formation. “This year I’m trying to offer instruction in how to educate the teenagers. This community is young, and some don’t live with their parents. We need to promote programs to prevent the vices of alcohol. It is necessary to work with families.”
In a way “the situation is a blessing because the people have come to realize the need to build (or buy) ourselves. We don’t have to be economically dependent,” he said. “We know we have to be dependent on St. Monica’s now, but we have to work to be independent. If I find a bigger place the people can come more. … I think it’s possible to buy.”