Published March 1, 2007
It all started with three families and, more than 100 years later, a squirrel.
Parishioners of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Hartwell paid tribute to their founders as well as made light of the incident that brought about the need for a new parish hall as it was dedicated Feb. 11 by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Called “Founders Hall,” the new facility honors the legacy of three immigrant families from Czechoslovakia who arrived in the area in the 1880s.
One Thursday morning in April 2002 a squirrel’s appetite for electrical wires in the rectory kitchen started a fire that destroyed the old farmhouse, which had once served as the church and was being used as the rectory and church office.
This incident banded together the community of descendants from the earliest Catholic families, and those who had moved into the area—significant pockets of Vietnamese and Hispanic residents as well as those attracted to nearby Lake Hartwell. While the old parish hall was not damaged in the fire, the new hall addresses the needs of the growing parish, which will retrofit the old parish hall with church offices in Phase II of the project. Two borrowed classrooms now house the offices.
On the sunny, crisp Sunday morning of the dedication, Archbishop Gregory, joined by pastor Father Terry Kane and Deacon Jerry Korte, offered the 9 a.m. Mass beginning with the entrance hymn, “All Are Welcome,” sung by the combined Vietnamese and Anglo choirs as well as by the congregation.
Descendants of the three founding families—Ken Doker, Ralph Kotal and Gene Sokol—brought forth the gifts during the offertory.
Members of the Knights of Columbus served as the archbishop’s honor guard and contributed to the pageantry of the event, which continued after Mass with the blessing of the new facility and the unveiling of the plaque, making public for the first time the name of the new building, “Founders Hall.” To the amusement of many, perched on top of the plaque was a stuffed toy squirrel, affectionately dubbed “Johnny Come Lately” by building committee member Cheri Griggs and others on the committee.
“We’ve got to thank that squirrel,” Griggs said later, repeating the words of her husband, Bill, also a committee member.
The archbishop blessed the hall’s interior and also three books containing parishioners’ names, and which recognize the Anglo, Hispanic and Vietnamese communities that join together to form the congregation.
“When the archbishop blessed (the books), he blessed every person in the church,” said Joe Brandeburg, a member of the parish’s Heritage Committee.
The formalities concluded with everyone singing “Bless This House.” Then, the Our Lady’s Circle hosted a reception of finger foods, with crowd-pleasing spring rolls provided by the Vietnamese community, in the current parish hall since the finishing touches were still being added to the new facility.
The 5,000-square-foot hall will accommodate 250 people and has tiled rest rooms, 15-foot cathedral ceilings, a 10-foot by 50-foot deck off the back, a semi-commercial kitchen, courtesy of Ingles and Kroger’s supermarkets, as well as a 5,000-square-foot unfinished basement. A covered courtyard was not originally part of the building project, but an anonymous donation made the walkway between the church and new hall a reality.
The contractor was Ron Cantrell, and the fundraising chairs were Chris and Tony Hilton. The building and design committee included the Griggs, Mary Lou and David Leverette, the Hiltons and Steve Patterson, who served as the church’s liaison for the building project. The parish also appreciated the work of Dennis Kelly from Catholic Construction Services.
It is clear that Father Kane relishes his life in Hartwell. The pastor is a visible member in the larger Hartwell community. He has played a priest in a local production of “Hello, Dolly!,” sung in the Methodist church’s Christmas cantata and took up square dancing for a time.
“I’m sitting on top of the world,” he said. “We have a great community; it’s very friendly.”
In a phone interview following the event, Father Kane recalled how he and parishioners considered saving the historic farmhouse built around 1908.
“Kids in their 20s would come by and say they had gone to Sunday school (in the farmhouse).”
When he, committee members and “old timers” realized there was smoke damage to much of the structure, they heeded the advice to tear it down and start from scratch.
Father Kane spoke highly of those “empowered” to handle the many aspects of the building project.
“Everyone did a great job,” he said.
The priest recalled how the choir “was in great form” the morning of the dedication and offered his appreciation for “the little extra work” the archbishop performed while visiting the parish. He blessed the columbarium for departed parishioners situated on the property and addressed members of the Hispanic community who had begun arriving for Mass later that morning.
Recalling the social hour following the dedication, he said, “The archbishop chatted until he had to get back to Atlanta for another appointment that day.”
Among others, Cheri Griggs put a lot of time into planning the dedication and was delighted to see the archbishop make the trip.
“We don’t get to see the archbishop very often; that was a big deal in him just being here.”
Music director Nancy Emhart called the archbishop’s presence “icing on the cake.”
“He was most gracious. Everyone was commenting on how nice he was with the children.”
Emhart also pointed out the importance of the parish’s fundraising campaign for the new hall called “Together We Can.”
“It was a real ‘together’ effort,” she said. “People responded because they saw the need.”
Griggs also shared some of the creative fundraising tactics employed by the parish, including coffee cans converted into “‘Together We Can’ cans,” given to each parish family in which they could put their extra change.
“It was a long, ongoing process,” she said, but the end result has been very satisfying.
“To me, the highpoint was to watch the families’ faces when we unveiled the plaque. It was really emotional,” Griggs added, saying that she appreciates what the founding families went through to practice their Catholic faith.
“They wanted to worship as a community. … We’re very grateful to them. They’re the reason why we have a church in Hartwell. They were pioneers.”
Despite daily work demands of life in the 1880s, the Doker, Kotal and Sokol families never forgot their faith, accepting the sacrifices and vigilantly looking for opportunities to practice and pass on what they held so dear. Accounts depict the 25-mile journeys the families made by mule and wagon to attend Mass in Anderson, S.C.
“(My grandfather) would give up a day’s pay to go to Mass in Anderson. That’s how long it took to get there,” said Francis Gaines, a parishioner and descendant of the Kotal family.
Later on, the families gathered in one another’s homes when priests visiting the area would offer Mass.
“As a child I remember having Mass at our house. I was always so excited when everyone came. … We would use a dresser for the altar. When I look back at that now, I think what a strange set-up, but that was what we had. And we had to bring every chair from every room in the house for people to sit on.”
She also remembers how Grandfather Kotal prayed continuously, and chuckled with affection, “Gee, wasn’t he a real prayer warrior!”
Gaines doesn’t remember too much attention being paid to her being Catholic in a town dominated by Protestants when she was growing up.
“In high school we just knew there’d be fish on Fridays (during Lent).”
She credited this lunch choice in the public school to the high school basketball coach who was Catholic. She also remembers visits by then Father Walter Donovan, now a retired monsignor. One summer three seminarians came and orchestrated what became three to four weeks of Bible school for the area’s children. And Father Joe Smith “kept in touch with my parents for the rest of their lives.”
Every priest has a different approach to his ministry, she said, but “it’s all good.”
“I look back and see how each taught me something I didn’t know.”
The dedication was “just breathtaking,” she said, and added that she looks forward to the chance to use the new hall. Cramped conditions in the existing hall require the growing parish to spill into the Sunday school classrooms when the parish holds its much-anticipated parish suppers, she said.
Linda Doker recalled the reaction of many of her family members to the tribute paid to the founders.
“We were touched beyond words. It brought tears to our eyes,” said Doker, wife of Ken Doker, whose mother wrote the original letter in 1953 petitioning Msgr. Joseph Moylan, administrator of the Savannah-Atlanta Diocese, to establish a church in Hartwell.
“It’s hard to express it in words. … For my husband, to think of the things they felt as children. (Catholics) were such a minority—there were mostly Southern Baptists—and when they did finally get to a place were they were beginning to grow, it gave them a sense of pride.”
A convert to Catholicism from the Baptist tradition, Doker said, “I love the Catholic faith.”
“Catholics were looked down upon because many knew little about the Catholic faith. … We’re in the community now and in good standing.”
She appreciated the recognition of the efforts of the early families.
“It gives (credit to) three families who persevered in faith when it was very hard. They really accomplished a lot.”
While the church’s roots go back to the founders, Doker acknowledged the efforts of many who have helped with the building project.
“The people ought to be commended. A lot of people have come into the church. We appreciate everything everyone has done. … We all feel like family.”
The community has pulled together in this effort to create a pleasant “fellowship hall.”
“There are so many workers that you can’t point out the lead person. Everyone works.”
One such worker is Joe Brandeburg Jr., a transplant from New York who retired to Hartwell 12 years ago but who had vacationed in the area for about 28 years.
“Here’s a guy who grew up in East New York,” he said. “When I told my mother (years ago) that I would wind up in the South, she thought I was crazy.”
Brandeburg began the parish’s Heritage Committee.
“The reason I started the Heritage Committee was that I realized how important our roots are. … There’s a great sense of pride that resides in the (church) family. In the meantime, there are a lot of new people who are very active in the church. … We cover a big, big area. People come from South Carolina and Georgia. What happens is that they want their kids to get a Catholic education.”
He recalled an aspect of history that he believes many Americans have forgotten about or taken for granted. “A lot of Europeans, especially the Czechs, came (to the United States) because of the freedom of religion. Faith was important to them. That’s one of the reasons why they left their country. … What started here wasn’t just for them.”
He has been busy gathering and putting in order parish records that paint the fascinating story of a strong rural faith community.
“When I started the Heritage Committee the symbol we chose to use is of a tree with the sun and the words: ‘you gauge a tree by its fruits; its strength by its roots.’”