Published February 15, 2007
St. Mary Magdalene was established as an east Coweta County mission of Holy Trinity Church in 1999 and quickly outgrew three temporary worship sites before building and moving this year into its new church, which was dedicated Feb. 8.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory celebrated a Mass of dedication of the congregation’s first permanent home before approximately 650 parishioners of all ages assembled outside in the chilly winter air for the Thursday evening liturgy. Concelebrating were pastor Father Daniel Fleming, the first priest in charge Father John Walsh and several other priests, assisted by Deacon Don Kelsey and Deacon Benedict Gross. The event began an octave of celebration with special events, including a community open house with tours, and a gathering with representatives of parish outreach and community service organizations. And the nascent church of 650 families is enthusiastically welcoming newcomers every week.
Building committee chairman Lloyd Forshee presented Archbishop Gregory with a scroll containing the building plans. He earnestly affirmed that the community built the church “because of the love and devotion of all our parishioners to our Lord and Savior.”
The Catholic community, which was elevated to a parish in 2004, has built its church about 40 miles south of downtown Atlanta on over 30 acres of property that includes a lake. Nearby a county library, sheriff’s satellite station, health center and senior center are being built. The mission held its first Mass in Thomas Crossroads Elementary School and then moved to Cokes United Methodist Chapel and finally to East Coweta High School, where religious education and other classes were held, while daily Mass and other meetings were held throughout the week in the rectory located on the property the archdiocese acquired.
Marie Mulvenna chairs the liturgy commission and recalled the challenges of holding Mass in their temporary spaces, “but we always had people willing to do it, carrying chairs, packing up stuff. We really were a pilgrim church,” she recalled.
She handles parish public relations as well as serving on the building committee and is reaping the spiritual fruits of donating her time to the parish and spreading the word about it throughout the county. She found that she actually looked forward to all those meetings and developed new friendships. “I didn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking about the different parts of the dedication. It’s just wonderful to have our own place and come together. It’s very exciting, and we are thankful and very blessed. God’s been good to us.”
She said that many parishioners had been going to Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City and St. George Church in Newnan. But the need was exigent for the mission, as “this area is growing tremendously with the new development and expansion in Coweta County.”
Indeed the county is the 68th fastest growing in America, going from 53,853 in 1990 to 89,215 in 2000 to 109,903 in 2005. The county seat is Newnan and it has eight historic districts. The church is located off a semi-pastoral highway stretch, but, just a few miles from I-85, is shadowed by the Atlanta metropolis.
As the dedication unfolded, Father Fleming opened the glass church doors and led those gathered into the dimly lit worship space, past the full-immersion baptismal font of grayish green tile. Parishioners then entered into prayer in their new worship space with putty, brown, and muted green hues, while gazing upon the centerpiece of a large San Damiano cross that was designed by Grant Park Artist Jim Yarbrough, an icon that includes St. Mary Magdalene and others around the crucified Lord. Elegant wooded furnishings were crafted by Mortensen Woodwork in Union City. They sang “All Are Welcome.” The archbishop then blessed the baptismal water and walked through the aisles to bless the congregation.
The Gospel reading from John told of how Mary Magdalene was the first to discover the risen Lord at the empty tomb. In his homily, the archbishop noted the irony in that a woman of sinful reputation was the first to be given the most important message of Christ’s resurrection, rather than it being given to one of his disciples or his mother. But he said this happened so that people would see that Christ’s light was not given out of merit but available for all who are sinners “to give us hope that out of darkness there is indeed light to give us courage to follow him.”
He said the church, too, has followed that brilliant light.
“This community of faith of St. Mary Magdalene gathers this evening in the darkness to begin a new moment in its own history. We come together in darkness to celebrate the light of what God has accomplished in you. … I’m pleased to say I stood with you in the rain and the mud as you began this project. I could not be more proud of what you have accomplished for God,” he said.
“I above all thank your pastor, Father Dan, who could not be more proud or filled with joy to witness this special night of St. Mary Magdalene. Daniel, may the Lord who has begun His good work in you bring it to fulfillment.”
The congregation then stood to give long applause to their pastor.
The archbishop thanked all those who contributed to the project. “To those of us who gather this evening to dedicate this new church, I say a word of gratitude, a word of gratitude for your faith, your generosity, your hope and your dedication. May this church, this new facility, this building, provide you greater incentive to gather in faith, hope and love, to proclaim Christ crucified to all this community, to your neighbors and friends, to all those people who will join Mary Magdalene in the months and years ahead.”
He concluded in affirmation that God reveals wondrous things in the darkness to guide the faithful with his light.
Following the homily he anointed the altar with chrism, which makes it a symbol of Christ the “Anointed One,” for the Father anointed him with the Holy Spirit and constituted him the high priest so that on the altar of his body he might offer the sacrifice of his life to save all. The archbishop anointed the four walls as a symbol that the church is an image of the holy city of Jerusalem and given over entirely to Christian worship.
He lit a bowl of incense on the altar, which billowed upward, signifying how Christ’s sacrifice ascends to God as an odor of sweetness and that the people’s prayers rise up to God’s throne. Finally, candles around and on the altar were lit in preparation for the spiritual banquet as the lights of the church were lit and attendees sang “Christ Be Our Light.”
Parishioners knelt for the Litany of the Saints on their new kneelers with a green leaf fabric design with muted red berries. During the offertory procession girls wearing white leotards with gold sashes from the new ecumenical dance group “Waves of Grace” came forth in liturgical dance.
Men brought forward a large basket with white roses.
Father Fleming thanked those who have served the church in the past. It began under the guidance of Father Walsh, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, as the “Sharpsburg Mission,” then was served by Father Joseph Morris, and for four months by Msgr. Paul Reynolds and Msgr. David Talley before Father Fleming was assigned in 2002. The building committee chairman then thanked the various committees and opened his arms to declare, “Welcome home.”
The church is 17,600 square feet and cost $3.7 million. It includes administrative offices, eight classrooms and the worship space that seats 615. The architects were Barker, Cunningham and Barrington of Buford. Group VI of Peachtree City was the general contractor. The next eventual project will be an education building.
The 40-acre site was acquired by Catholic Education of North Georgia in 1998 but was later sold to the parish, “recognizing the value this amount of land would bring to the future development of SMM,” said the pastor. The church eventually sold six acres to Coweta County for development.
When the parish changed the driveway entrance from Lower Fayetteville Road to another side of the property off Ebenezer Church Road, the address changed from Sharpsburg to Newnan.
Forshee recalled in an interview how after he moved to the area from Peachtree City and joined the church in 2003 he had volunteered to help out around the parish with furniture repair and other handiwork. The priest called him a couple of times to help with minor tasks, but the next request was a bit bigger—to head the building committee to build the church. And “they didn’t want a temporary facility.”
As he accepted the challenge, in the final months he was working some 10 hours a day on the project but gladly found he had plenty of help.
“Everybody works together. The volunteerism is exceptional. Everybody knows everybody. It’s just wonderful.”
When asked if it was the biggest church service he ever planned, the retiree from Eastman Kodak replied that actually “it’s one of the biggest things I ever did.” But now he and his wife, Liz, who moved here from Rochester, N.Y., to be near two daughters and their families, sigh with relief as they plan a vacation.
“It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe how well it turned out,” he said with relief.
Mrs. Forshee agrees that it’s “beautiful” and she “fell in love with” the community, which is caring and very spiritually engaged. She attended a Mass the previous weekend and recalled that “everybody was in tears Saturday night. They were just so happy.”
When you sign up for a parish ministry, she said, you are actually called to help. She serves as a eucharistic minister, women’s guild member, head of the grounds committee, and in a ministry to make shawls for people in nursing homes. She feels God led her and her husband there as they went out driving one day and ran across it.
“It’s very close-knit, friendly people,” she said. “It’s a warm church. Everybody is there for you, and we are there for each other. God has been the most important thing in the lives of everybody in this church, and Father Dan has been terrific.”
Parishioner Joan Tucker recalled how she cried when they bid farewell to the “chapel-teria” at the high school cafeteria, where she grew to love the parish after moving to the area from Maryland when her husband was transferred. She had never before been so involved in a parish and was led to deepen her commitment to serve God after making a Cursillo retreat. She now serves as a eucharistic minister, and in a meal preparation ministry while her husband is the head sacristan. They also lead the parish Ultreya group for those who’ve made a Cursillo. Father Fleming gave her husband a blessing when he went to Iraq as an intelligence analyst, and the Knights of Columbus cleaned her yard during his absence.
“We’ve really bonded with this parish. We’ve liked other churches, but we’ve bonded with these people and don’t want to leave,” she said. “You need anything, you call on these people.”
Tucker and her husband also felt called by God to become foster parents. She brought along to the dedication an 18-year-old foster youth Cody Alexander. He had never previously been exposed to Christianity.
“He just feels so welcomed and warm here that he wants to be here all the time,” she said. He tells them that he now plans to earn his GED and enter the military.
The tall teen, wearing a black leather jacket, said that he loves to attend Mass and is in the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation program.
“I’ve been coming to church about three months and all the people are real nice, and I didn’t have religion until I came here. I love it. I’m understanding (Christianity) now more than I ever have. I started coming here, and it all started making sense. They are all very nice and caring people.”
As the reception wound down, Father Fleming took a break from greeting parishioners to comment on his mission for the parish to open wide its doors to the community. He said that the people at nearby Cokes Chapel, which had provided worship space, have been such “dear friends and good neighbors and they have been so instrumental in our growth.” The two churches will host joint Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday services, as well as an ecumenical luncheon for area pastors. Father Fleming believes there needs to be more ecumenism in the church as “Christ said we are all on the same team. If they are not against us they are for us.” He has also been working with other clergy to establish the One Roof religious coalition to provide support for those in need in Coweta County.
St. Mary Magdalene now has 120 children in religious education, 40 middle-school students, and about 80 students in high school. With the new building “we will probably double in size in the next 12-18 months,” the pastor enthusiastically projected.
He said that since 2002 the community has grown from under 240 families to over 600 and that now the challenge is to expand ministries and outreach to enable every visitor to find a place there. “You have to keep up programs to continue to meet the needs of the newcomer.”
Pioneer parishioner and finance council chair Ken Kula is glad to help Father Fleming in that effort. He also loves this community and enjoys spending his day off at the parish working on parish finances.
“I think (the new building) is great. It’s nice to get back in a real church from the high school cafeteria. (My kids) are excited about it,” he said, adding that one of his children was the first parish baptism. “I love this place. It’s home. We’ve been here since day one.”