By RENA T. OLSEN, Special To The Bulletin | Published July 19, 2007
The communities of Roswell and Alpharetta have experienced significant changes since June 1, 1972, when the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas was formed to serve all of north Fulton County from the Chattahoochee River to the county line. What was once a rural, sparsely populated community has grown to become a bustling metropolitan suburb, richly populated with Catholics from all over the world. During this critical time of growth and change, St. Thomas Aquinas Church has been a welcoming place for thousands of Catholics who have called this parish home.
The church celebrated its 35th anniversary at the beginning of June with three days of homecoming festivities for current and former parishioners, including an anniversary Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue; a concert with composer, artist and former St. Thomas Aquinas parishioner Ed Bolduc; a family day event; and an anniversary cake after the morning and Spanish-language Masses on Sunday.
More than 20 visiting priests and deacons joined Archbishop Gregory, Archbishop Donoghue, Father Greg Goolsby, pastor, and a church filled with current and former parishioners to begin the parish’s anniversary festivities with a Mass on Thursday, May 31. Also attending were former St. Thomas Aquinas pastors Msgr. Daniel O’Connor and Father Albert Jowdy, Sister Valentina Sheridan, SM, Father Serge Chadic and Father Patrick Plaisival from the church’s sister parish in Delatte, Haiti, and Alpharetta Mayor Arthur Letchas and his wife.
Bolduc wrote and debuted a beautiful responsorial psalm for the occasion, “How Wonderful Your Name in All the Earth.” A special collection taken during Mass was donated to the sister parish in Haiti. A reception hosted by the Friends of Martha followed in the parish hall.
During his homily at the anniversary Mass, Archbishop Gregory said, “The most successful parishes are born of faith, hope and love.”
“As a parish family, it’s important to celebrate our history and remember where we’ve been,” said Father Goolsby.
“Understanding who we are helps us refocus our energies so we can decide where we are going to go for the next 35 years.”
The anniversary concert held Friday, June 1, featured music performed by the St. Thomas Aquinas choirs, spoken word and a multi-media presentation on the five elements that have formed and shaped the parish as a people of God: hospitality, faith formation, evangelization, music and liturgy, and cultural diversity.
“When I walk in the door, I feel like it’s where I’m supposed to be,” said parishioner Paul Caruso in a video interview played that night. “It’s like when I go home and unlock the key at night, it’s like going into my place.” Recurring themes of home, family, faith formation—and coffee and doughnuts—featured in memories shared again and again.
Special guest and former parishioner Lisa Kus traveled from Reno, Nev., along with her service dog, Burgess, to share her story of conversion from atheism to Catholicism. Kus, who uses a wheelchair because of muscular dystrophy, knew she had found her “home” when she first visited St. Thomas Aquinas and saw the ramp leading up to the altar and Deacon John Strachan (also in a wheelchair) “motoring up the aisle” to assist with Mass. Kus celebrated the sacraments of initiation at the parish and went on to become a member of the RCIA team, a lector and Small Faith community leader.
Already an accomplished pianist, Bolduc got his start in Catholic music and liturgy at St. Thomas Aquinas in the ‘80s as a teenager when he started playing piano and singing in the folk group. At the concert, he shared his story, played accompaniment on the piano and sang with his wife, Karen.
Among those attending the concert was a “parade of nations” reflecting the make-up of the people of St. Thomas Aquinas with active parishioners represented from a number of countries, including Poland, Sierra Leone, Canada, England, Scotland, Haiti, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, among others. The concert concluded with a reception hosted by the parish’s Fellowship for Moms.
The next morning the parish celebrated Family Day, and over 600 people turned out to enjoy games, food, dancing and fellowship in honor of the anniversary. The parish’s Hispanic culture was celebrated in music, dance and food with traditional American fare prepared by the Knights of Columbus.
Parishioners Russ and Kim Hayes served as anniversary chairpersons for the celebration and were assisted by numerous volunteers. “Kim and I were truly privileged to serve as co-chairs for the anniversary celebration,” said Russ. “St. Thomas Aquinas is very special to us, and we were honored—on behalf of ourselves and all of the members of the parish—to have this opportunity to express our gratitude to all those, past and present, who have contributed to building this wonderful, welcoming, Christ-centered community. We have all been blessed to be part of St. Thomas Aquinas, and it was fun and moving to both look back and forward as we celebrated our theme, ‘35 Years of Grace.’”
The church’s roots can be traced back to the 1950s when each spring, Msgr. Joseph Cassidy, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, would travel north to hold Bible study in Roswell at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Orville May. Written minutes from the church’s archives reveal a glimpse into the earliest days of the parish, “The tranquil setting of the Mays’ home reminded everyone of the beauty of God’s world and His closeness to us all. The graciousness of Mrs. Katherine May and her generosity in sharing her home will always be remembered.”
In 1959, this small group organized as a mission of the Cathedral of Christ the King under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas and celebrated Mass for the first time on September 27, 1959, with Msgr. Michael Regan at the Roswell Community Center. Ten families were present.
For the next 13 years, the people patiently waited for a church building to call home. During this time they met in each other’s homes and various public buildings in Roswell, including the Fulton Federal Bank and North Roswell and Mimosa elementary schools. An early tradition was established during this time that remains today: the coffee and doughnut ministry. After Mass, people gathered together to share coffee and doughnuts and then attended religious education classes.
In 1964, the administration of the mission was transferred from Christ the King to St. Jude the Apostle in Sandy Springs. The mission grew to 200 families. On June 1, 1972, Archbishop Thomas Donellan announced the establishment of St. Thomas Aquinas as a parish. A 14-acre site of land was purchased for the new church in Alpharetta on Rucker Road that same year. A 10,000 square-foot multi-purpose facility was built and dedicated in October 1972. By 1977, the parish had grown to 600 families. Ten years later, a new church sanctuary with seating for 700 was built and dedicated.
The Stations of the Cross in the church and the rose window in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel came from the old St. Joseph infirmary in downtown Atlanta.
In 1993 the growing number of Spanish-speaking Catholics in the area prompted the beginning of the parish’s first Hispanic ministry. From an occasional outdoor Mass on Frazier Street in Roswell, the parish now celebrates two weekly Masses in Spanish, a flourishing religious education program and 17 Hispanic ministries.
St. Thomas Aquinas celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1997 and began a twinning relationship with St. Martin Parish in Delatte, Haiti. There have been many visits between the two church communities, and the parish continues to assist with both financial and prayerful support of their sister parish.
The parish was selected as an “Excellent Catholic Parish” in 2000 and included in Paul Wilkes’ book “Excellent Catholic Parishes: The Guide to Best Places and Practices.”
In 2005 St. Thomas Aquinas was selected by North Fulton Community Charities as “Church Partner of the Year.”
Throughout the growth and change, St. Thomas Aquinas continues to be a vibrant, welcoming parish that is highly diverse. Today the parish is home to more than 3,300 families, 86 different ministries, nine commissions and two councils. The church offers a comprehensive religious education program with many families participating in Small Faith communities. Eight Masses are celebrated on the weekend and two are in Spanish.
The parish will continue to celebrate its 35th anniversary throughout the year. The next initiative will be a survey to assess needs and desires of the community, both immediate and long-term, followed by a strategic action plan.
“My job is to re-energize this parish,” said Father Goolsby. “Together with the people of St. Thomas we will create a strategic vision of how to serve each other, and the larger community, followed by an action plan that will look toward our next 10 years of growth and grace.”
To learn more about St. Thomas Aquinas Church, visit the parish Web site at www.sta.org or call (770) 457-4501.