By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 29, 2007
If you’re in town Wednesday evenings during Lent you’re invited to the soup suppers at Queen of Angels Church, but don’t forget to bring your soup bowl. Clam chowder, chicken noodle, gumbo—and meatless soups on Ash Wednesday—are the fare at the gatherings of the small community in the country.
Parishioner Bob Kiel came to Queen of Angels in 1977 when the parish was still a mission. He escaped the Midwest, where he grew up, and enjoys living “out in the boondocks.” He’s learned to say “y’all,” but admits that he hasn’t taken yet to grits.
“Our parish is a very small, close-knit family. I know about everyone in the church,” he said. “Once in awhile there’s a new face, and we go and speak to them.”
That is happening more frequently, Kiel says, recalling that in earlier days Catholics were scarce and somewhat considered “strange.”
“Today Catholics are a big part of the community.”
The Oblate Fathers were serving in the area when Kiel arrived, he said and added, “We’ve only had five priests in 25 years. We’ve been pretty lucky.”
He and his wife, Sharon, whom he met in Thomson, have two grown children who have since moved from the area, but the couple stays busy. In 1999, Kiel said fellow parishioners “were bugging me to join” the St. Vincent de Paul Society, started at the parish in 1993. Kiel and his wife attended the meeting and both went on a home visit. Not long after they joined, the council president retired.
“I asked him, ‘Who’s going to take your place?’ ‘You are, of course,’” Kiel said with a laugh. Kiel now serves as president of the council.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society is one of the active ministries offered through the parish of 160 registered families.
“We do anything you can imagine. The vast majority needs help with utilities and rent. We also have a small food bank.”
Just recently he helped a transient who stopped at a truck stop on I-20. The cashier there referred the man to the Catholic church. “We bought him a bus ticket to Anniston, Ala.”
There are about 12 members in the SVDP council, he said. “Home visits are the most important part. We see where (clients are) living and know better how to help from that. … We go through bills with them and try to help out.”
Kiel often makes home visits with his wife and offers a prayer to help the family through their current situation.
“One of the questions on our form is if they go to church. If they don’t go I tell them there are plenty out there and invite them to ours. They’re always welcome.”
The council faces the challenge of addressing the needs of an area that covers five counties, according to Father Bill Williams, pastor at Queen of Angels.
“We’re so small. I take a hands-on approach,” he said. “We may help in more than one way, providing bus tickets, putting someone up for a night, it really depends, but volunteers go out of their way.”
Outside of the parish’s monthly collections for St. Vincent de Paul, the small Thomson council is fortunate to receive help with expenses from Father Williams’ previous parish, St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn.
Father Williams enjoys “a smaller church atmosphere.” He arrived at the parish in January 2006 and realizes that “it takes a good couple of years” to develop closer relationships with parishioners.
“I’m getting to know families, and they’re getting to know about me.”
Between 75 and 100 people show up for Wednesday’s soup suppers, which begin with the celebration of Mass at 6 p.m. After a dinner of soup, bread and refreshments, the youth attend programs.
“They love to get together to eat,” he said of the community, adding that the parish also hosts a St. Patrick’s Day dinner, brunches on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and a dinner in the fall where children dress as saints. His days are busy attending to the parish’s pastoral as well as administrative needs.
“It’s a one-man parish,” he explained.
He works on the bulletin and sets up before Mass and other sacraments. He accepts his administrative duties but enjoys “being more pastoral.”
“I have the help of a bookkeeper and Judy, the secretary, but some things I have to do on my own.”
The bookkeeper is the only paid part-time employee. Much is accomplished by volunteers from the parish, including the work of secretary Judy Kremin.
Opening her “big mouth,” she had promised Father Williams to help in the office two days a week “until you get straightened out,” she said. “(But) two days a week has turned out to be two days a week permanently. I told him, though, that if my grandchildren call, ‘I’m out of here,’” she explained with a laugh.
She enjoys working in “the delightful place. … It’s very pleasant out here in the woods. … There’s something new going on all the time. It’s not just paperwork. People come by.”
Kremin grew up mostly in Georgia but traveled with the military and then decided to retire to Georgia. She noted that the area has attracted many retirees. “Someone asked me what we offer senior citizens. I looked around and said, ‘We’re all senior citizens; we’re all involved.’ We’re primarily a retirement community. But some young people are coming back (to the area). Now there are more young people (at the parish) because of Father Bill. … It seems like we’re being revitalized.”
With the help of parish volunteers, Father Williams has fashioned a youth ministry using the Edge program for middle-school youth and Life Teen for those in high school. The youth meet Wednesday evenings, which he says, “works here” because of the Protestant tradition of gathering midweek. “Some kids were going to the Protestant youth groups. There was nothing here before I got here.”
With previous experience as chaplain for the Knights of Columbus while at St. John Neumann, Father Williams has assumed the same role at Queen of Angels. The Knights support causes such as raising money for a local crisis pregnancy center as well as financially sponsoring a seminarian of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Father Williams’ support has been instrumental to the council’s Grand Knight Rick Tuchscherer. “(Father Bill) has been very helpful to me and is very dedicated to the Knights and our work. … Being a Knight is very satisfying and spiritually uplifting.”
Tuchscherer explained in an e-mail that Father Michael McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus in the mid-1880s “during a time when Catholics were considered third-class citizens or worse.”
“It was a way for the Catholic men to band together to help widows and orphans.”
Over the decades the Knights have grown to include almost 2 million Catholic men in every state of the union and in many foreign countries, he continued.
“The Knights stand in solidarity with the Holy Father and our bishops and priests. We serve the community and the worldwide church.”
Being elected as the Grand Knight of his council has been “a very high honor as well as very challenging,” Tuchscherer added. “We are constantly looking for ways to serve the parish and community.”
As a child, Tuchscherer was active in the Boy Scouts through another denomination, and converted to the Catholic faith after he married. Tuchscherer and his wife, Joy, both retired from the Army, and they started attending Queen of Angels after their last child left home and they moved to the country in 1996. Prior to that they attended the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta, a parish in the Savannah Diocese where Tuchscherer worked as the director of Catholic Social Services.
They discovered the small Thomson church, which sits back off the road, and started attending the “quiet” Saturday vigil Mass. “The people were great, and it is only about a 10-minute drive from our home.”
For Tuchscherer the best part of being associated with Queen of Angels “without a doubt … would be the people.”
“This is a small rural parish family, and everyone is friendly and we all help one another,” he said. “Faith is abundant in this parish.”
Like many outlying Catholic communities in Georgia, Queen of Angels has a rich history tied to dedicated families that passed down the faith from generation to generation.
“We still have descendants of the original family,” said Kremin, who wrote a history of the parish.
In 1930 the McNeill family came to Thomson from Chicago to begin a wooden box manufacturing plant. None of the McNeill men were Catholic, so the first Catholic community in Thomson consisted of their children and wives who welcomed a priest from Tennessee who visited periodically to celebrate Mass. When their number grew too large to meet in the McNeill’s living room for Mass, the community of seven families met in the town’s library until 1948. After the death of her husband, David McNeill, Nellie McNeill donated a small house in downtown Thomson that became Queen of Angels Chapel, named after Mrs. McNeill’s home parish in Chicago. In 1955 the community became a mission of St. Joseph Church in Washington.
Fortunately a series of missionary priests from the Verona community had accepted the task of ministering to the area. One well known to the area was Father Larry Endrizzi, who worked tirelessly to raise funds to build a new church. The priest died tragically in a car accident in 1966.
The present day church, newly built in 1968, was dedicated by Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin, who went on to become Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. In 1970 the Oblate Fathers took over ministering to the area when the Verona priests returned to missionary work in Africa.
Parishioners continued to fashion their new church building, which incorporated their history.
“The first three pews on each side of the middle aisle are from the little church on Hall Street,” said Kremin. “The old kneeling rail is part of the choir rail now.”
Her booklet also chronicles the contributions parishioners made to the new church such as the corpus on the cross that came from Italy and the cross itself fashioned by Johnny McNeill, as well as the church sign erected by longtime parishioner Louis Graziano, who negotiated the purchase of the property the parish sits on.
The church building has been a work in progress since the beginning. Father Williams is currently consulting with Trappist Father Methodius Telnack of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers as he designs and crafts new stained glass windows for the church based on the life of Mary.
John Stier, who moved to the area with his wife and five children in 1964, is well acquainted with the parish’s history and has helped with its finances.
“We met in a little hall, a house that had been converted into a church. There were about 68 people, and when the seven of us came there were 75. We added about 10 percent to the church population. From there, we slowly grew.”
Stier’s employer, Uniroyal, which manufactured U.S. footwear, brought him and others to the area, drawing 700 to 800 people in about eight years.
“We were the first employer to employ blacks and were vital to integration (locally),” he explained. At that time most of the area’s African-Americans worked as field hands or maids.
While Catholics in Thomson enjoy the present ecumenical spirit of the community, Stier commented that it was not always as such.
“When we came, being a Catholic was kind of a no-no. … (The) Verona Missionaries sent Father Larry Endrizzi—when he walked down the street people would cross the street to avoid meeting him. Also, the town and county were totally segregated. It wasn’t until 1968 they had begun to integrate.”
Stier recalled when the plant manager began hiring African-Americans for the new Uniroyal plant in Thomson. He was told by the contractor, “You can’t do that down here.” But the plant manager continued to do so and there were no problems. Not soon after the plant opened, the school system was desegregated. The town has gone on to elect a black mayor.
As for being Catholic, Stier recalled how people came to see them “as normal folks although we had five children which nobody else had. … We made our way along.”
In the 1980s pastors from the different denominations began to take an interest in ecumenical outreach, Stier said. “They had common problems of money and integration. It helped a good bit. One of the pastors was a gourmet chef and he would invite (people from other) churches to the rectory for some fancy food. ”
In 1981 Queen of Angels was still a mission of St. Joseph’s in Washington, but the mission had expanded to about 150 people.
“It became too big to remain a mission and the diocese (of Atlanta) took over and assigned a permanent pastor in 1984,” he explained.
In 1981 the local Uniroyal plant shut down and moved its production overseas. With their children now out of high school, Stier and his wife lived in Spain for three years where another shoe plant was located. Eventually the couple returned to Thomson where their friends remained and where he opened an accounting/tax business.
“It’s a good place to retire; there’s not the violent weather like in Florida. … It’s close to the mountains and only three hours from the ocean.”
While the weather may draw many to the area, it’s what one can do almost daily that drives many—play golf. Stier can often be found out on a golf course. Along with the renowned Belle Meade foxhunting season that starts locally in the fall, Thomson’s proximity to Augusta makes it a desired spot en route to the Masters Golf Tournament played annually at the Augusta National Golf Club, which is about 30 miles away.
Parishioner Shirley Radican has enjoyed what the area has to offer, including golf and riding motorcycles, but most of her time now goes toward promoting the National Council of Catholic Women, which was established by the bishops in 1920. Born in Florida and raised in Alabama, Radican spent most of her life in Rhode Island. She came to the area when her husband wanted to buy a vacation home on a lake, and “we fell in love with the church.”
“Over the next four years we commuted from here to Florida,” she said. “I got involved. I don’t know enough to keep my mouth shut.”
The former travel agent serves as the Region 3 vice president of the NCCW, and travels extensively to share the ideals of the NCCW “to support, educate and empower Catholic women in Gospel values.”
Some of the issues the local council takes on include supporting efforts to bring clean water to desolate areas, providing an outreach to a nearby state mental hospital and raising funds to rebuild and buy books for Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School in Beaumont, Texas, which was hit by Hurricane Rita.
“Sometimes we look at the injustices among us. … Women have a more nurturing sense and they want to see them made right. We want to take care of it,” she said, and commented on the inception and purpose of the NCCW.
“The bishops say they want certain issues tackled—morality, abortion—it was the sweat shops then. Sometimes we’re like a bulldog; when we get hold of something we’re not letting go until we see that we’re there.”
For Radican, who lost her husband almost eight years ago, her involvement goes beyond just being part of a ministry.
“My husband was the biggest supporter of the council. If I didn’t have the council in my life I don’t know how I would have survived. It’s a great sisterhood.”
Radican recalled how Catholic women in Thomson led prayer services and the rosary and taught the catechism to the children. She remembered a talk by Archbishop John F. Donoghue in which he called women “the backbone of the church.”
“Women keep things going.”
Father Williams is quick to say that, like Radican, many of his parishioners “have an active faith.”
For his part, he strives to be the good shepherd who “tends to the people.”
“The thing Jesus tells his disciples is to go out and proclaim the Good News. Proclaiming is active. I have to get out of the way and let Jesus work through me. ‘I’m the vine, you are the branches.’ I’m just a branch in the vineyard of Christ’s work.”