By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 4, 2007
Water always flows in the large baptismal font that dominates the main entrance to the new St. Matthew’s Church. Worshippers dip their hands into the holy water and then step around the font into the spacious church, where the large clear windows look out onto lush greenery.
The handcrafted structure with its gold-tiled Jerusalem cross is a reminder how everyone enters the church through baptism. As Father Jaime Barona put it, people grow in the faith that starts with holy water, as a plant requires water to prosper.
“You may have a beautiful building, but without a spirit, it’s an empty building. At St. Matthew, it’s filled with the Spirit of the Lord,” said Father Barona, the pastor.
A festive bilingual Mass dedicated the new St. Matthew Church on Saturday, Sept. 22, to replace a Depression-era public school building, known affectionately as the “little chapel on the hill.” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was the chief celebrant, assisted by Father Barona, Deacon Timothy Kirksey and other priests and deacons from the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“The dedication of a new church is one of the happiest moments in the church’s liturgy because it allows the work of our human hands to be joined in a physical-sacramental way with the power of God’s grace,” Archbishop Gregory said to the standing-room-only crowd of parishioners.
At the handover, Archbishop Gregory accepted the church’s building plans from Fred Hedges, a member of the building committee.
“It touched my heart,” Hedges said later. (At the party following Mass, Hedges and his wife, Virginia, were surprised when it was announced the community’s new social hall would be named in their honor: Hedges Hall. The couple received papal honors as a Knight and a Dame of St. Gregory in 2003.)
Archbishop Gregory told the crowd how the church’s patron is a reformed tax collector, a position despised during Jesus’ time.
“Jesus was a visitor at Matthew’s home—his very presence sanctified that otherwise ordinary dwelling place. Jesus will dwell here in this new house for the church,” he said. “Here will Christ continue to dine with sinners and tax collectors, with people who have many faults and more than a few fears, with people whose faith is occasionally weak and perhaps even nonexistent. In this house, Christ will continue to be the physician who heals all those who are sick with sin and sorrow. We bless God for helping all of you accomplish this wonderful gesture of love and hope,” he said.
With an apron replacing his gold vestments, Archbishop Gregory anointed the altar. His bare hands smeared oil consecrated on Holy Thursday and then he blessed it with sweet-smelling incense.
The construction of the new $4 million sanctuary and other facilities is the largest undertaking at the parish.
“This is the culmination of the love and labor and commitment and vision of the people of St. Matthew. I personally don’t know if I have enough words in my heart of the people of St. Matthew,” said Father Barona.
The former Matthew Public School in November 1964 became the spiritual home to Catholics in Barrow County, an hour’s drive from Atlanta. In the mid-1970s, the facility was remodeled with pews and stained glass windows. It would be nearly 20 years before the building got another renovation.
St. Matthew’s started with nine families in 1964, growing to some 1,200 families now. It has been a mission of St. Joseph, Athens, and St. Anna, Monroe, before becoming a mission of St. Oliver Plunkett, Snellville, in July 1991 when it began to be served by the Missionaries of Our Lady of LaSalette. Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue made it a parish in its own right in 1999. The church is located at the corner of Wilkins Road and Highway 8.
The community raised close to 85 percent of the $2 million goal for the project’s capital campaign, said Father Barona. The remaining funds for the project are financed with the assistance of the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Indeed, Father Barona joked at the dedication how people cautioned him that the parish did not have the finances as the plans developed.
“We still don’t have the money, but we have the church,” said Father Barona, who was greeted with a standing ovation.
One of the biggest benefits of the new building is a worship space large enough to handle the growing parish, the pastor said. The dedicated sanctuary seats close to 700 people, two and a half times larger than the school building turned church.
“From the little chapel on the hill, we have a fabulous, beautiful church,” he said.
For Dan and Terri Buckley, the day represented a bright future.
The Buckleys moved into the parish about a year ago. Terri is a teacher with the county school system and a lector. Dan works as a bookkeeper and extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. He is also starting the diaconate program.
“The new church gives you a sense of space, openness and new possibilities,” Dan Buckley said. The celebration fulfilled the dreams of longtime parishioners, he said.
And Terri Buckley said the larger worship space may attract more people who went to other parishes because they did not like the crowded Masses in the old church.
It took nearly two years to complete the project, which includes the new church building and parking lot. The Hispanic community of the parish constructed an arched brick wall that adorns the outdoor plaza where a flowing fountain sits.
The construction company was RCCI, headed by Ron Cantrell, and the architect, George Havenka. Many of the items in the church were handcrafted by artisans, from the altar and ambo built by Paul Hill, and Dave and Helen Gagnon who refurbished the Stations of the Cross, to Robert and Lisa Byrne’s glass etchings, and the new crucifix made by Ken Smith, of Magbee Inc., and painted by Barbara Denton.