By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 27, 2007
Mary Striker drives her station wagon on to the grass lot beside the small red brick church on New England Road. It is 45 minutes before Sunday Mass starts.
She’s got a handful of luscious green ferns and a pot of mums filling the back seat. Striker carries the plants to decorate the altar entering through the church’s back door.
Meanwhile, people arrive for the 11 a.m. rosary. The social hall buzzes. Organizers set up the hall for the traditional potluck lunch after Mass.
It is a Sunday in the middle of September in a community where having a Catholic church means tighter ties to the community, seeing other believers in surprising numbers, a desire to pass on the faith to youngsters when distractions are plenty.
“You’re talking about people whose mothers, fathers, grandparents, great grandparents didn’t have this opportunity. They saw this as an opportunity for their ancestors’ wishes to come true,” says Anthony Emanuel, the leader of the parish council. “They were completely dedicated to making this happen.”
The growth in the Atlanta Archdiocese is felt in suburbs and rural communities alike. Transplanted Catholics are pioneers in towns where Catholics are few. Indeed, this aging country church is the first Catholic church in Georgia’s Dade County on the Alabama and Tennessee state line. The spiritual home now has a name, St. Katharine Drexel Mission.
It took generations to open a church in the county—some 130 miles northwest of Atlanta. “You have to appreciate the impact of not having a Catholic church,” says Emanuel. “The faithful were challenged.”
Attending Mass meant close to an hour on the road to a church in Alabama, Tennessee, or 30 minutes away in Lookout Mountain, Ga., driving on a mountain road that is closed by bad weather.
Former teacher Susan Walker and her husband, Rick Hansard, worshipped in Chattanooga, Tenn. But the distance made it hard to feel connected to the church community. They tried Baptist and Methodist churches in Trenton, but it was not a good fit.
“Being born Catholic, it just didn’t feel right to me,” says Walker, a native of New Jersey but a longtime resident of the South. She is a lector and song leader and her husband plays the piano during the Mass.
Building a new congregation from scratch brought everyone together.
“It really makes a difference. We want to grow, but we want to keep the small feeling,” says Walker as she cleans a table after lunch.
Trenton, the county seat of Dade County, sits in the northwest corner of the state. Some 15,154 people live in these Appalachian Mountain foothills. Faith is taken seriously. The local chamber of commerce lists some 60 different houses of worship in the county. Catholics number 470, far behind the predominant group, evangelical Christians with 3,670 faithful, according to the most recent survey, a 2000 census compiled by the Association of Religion Data Archives.
Request Fullfilled With Crowded Masses
Msgr. Leo Herbert arrived at Lookout Mountain’s Our Lady of the Mount Church four years ago. Parishioners who drove mountain roads from Dade County to the church for years asked the pastors for a place of their own to worship. The requests were finally fulfilled in the spring of 2006 once Msgr. Herbert agreed to celebrate monthly Masses in Trenton.
“We were hoping to have 20 something people. At the first Mass, we had 40 something,” says Emanuel, who is 63 and the mayor of Trenton. Emanuel is a Catholic convert. He prayed in Baptist and Methodist churches growing up in the county. The first Catholic church he attended was in high school when he visited his father in New York City. Six years ago, he participated in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in Memphis. He returned to Dade County right after that to help his mother. He is the state executive director for the Georgia Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
Catholics prayed together in a local Methodist church as a temporary home in Dade County. But soon worshippers needed a place of their own when the crowds at Mass filled the chapel.
The local church leaders found a willing partner in the Trenton Historical Society. The group owned a church building it used for meetings in what’s called the New England area of the county. The structure was in disrepair since the church closed in 1977. It would take a lot of work to get it up to code. That made church leaders in Atlanta cautious about buying the building outright. An engineering report estimated it’d take some $250,000 to upgrade the building. Instead, a five-year lease-purchase agreement was inked.
Given the go-ahead, volunteers refurbished the country church where the brick rests on a foundation mined from Lookout Mountain. Parishioners saved the original 19th-century wooden pews. (One clear signal that they weren’t built for Catholic worship is the lack of kneelers.) The sun shines through simple stained glass windows that date to the 1930s. The windows were replaced after the church was rebuilt following a fire.
Workers put in long hours to ready the building, sometimes staying past midnight. Some $15,000 in cash and $35,000 of in-kind contributions helped. Sacred objects, like a tabernacle to house the Eucharist and an altar and the devotional Stations of the Cross from Jasper’s Our Lady of the Mountains, completed the work.
“It’s a little gem. It’s just as cute as a button,” said Msgr. Herbert.
The first Mass in the refurbished building was last October and now the church community is focused on the future. Msgr. Herbert is looking for a bilingual deacon to help the community since he is only there once a week. (A Hispanic family recently started to worship here.) Nearly a dozen youngsters are preparing for first Communion. A program for adults and teens is getting off the ground.
Msgr. Herbert credited the desire and the petitioning by the people for creating the mission. “It’s a great feeling. It’s a humble start,” he says.
Membership continues to grow. Mass attracts upwards of 75 people, and Easter drew some 130 people (That crowd helped estimate the church could fit about 150 people.) And people who have never gone to a Catholic liturgy are stopping by, Emanuel says.
Getting To Know Each Other Better
Catholics in Dade County were dispersed to churches in Tennessee, Alabama and other communities in Georgia. So, part of the Sunday ritual now is a post-Mass potluck dinner as people get to know each other.
The lunch in the social hall following Mass is a spread of macaroni and cheese, a potato casserole, baked beans, a pasta salad, along with a table of cakes and other sweets. A pot of coffee was brewed.
Brian Stone, 53, eats his lunch. Born in Dade County, the school bus driver attends the church even though he isn’t Catholic. He comes with his wife, Jeannie, who is Catholic.
The two attended a nearby Baptist church, but moved to St. Katharine for his wife. He enjoys the Mass now too. Stone says he likes how the priest talks only about the Scripture readings and does not inject his own point of view. Plus, he finds the parishioners neighborly. “All these people are a close-knit group,” he says, pausing betweens bites of his beans.
Carson and Kay Freeman joke their children will be about half of the religious education program. They have four children, Carson, 17, Michael, 15, Katie, 13, and Zachary, 10.
When the Freemans started attending, Kay recalls they spotted people they knew from around town but had no idea were Catholic, like a school secretary.
“I was surprised we had that many people from the get-go,” says Carson, 50, who is an engineer.
“We thought we were the only ones,” says Kay about being Catholic. “It’s kind of nice,” says the 44-year-old stay-at-home mom.
Now that the church is organized, the couple says a religious education program, along with activities for teenagers, should get off the ground. Many of the Protestant churches have activities to draw in youngsters, so the mission needs programs that appeal to that age, they say.
In the parking lot, Striker’s station wagon is full of the plants again. The Ohio native brings them back home between Sundays to make sure they are watered.
“I just volunteered, like everybody here. The people are a super group of volunteers,” says Striker. She says the potlucks show how the church is “just like an extension of your family.”