By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 17, 2008
On a recent Sunday, some 100 people filled the parish hall at St. Helena Church, Clayton, straining to listen and watch Mass on a large screen TV as the sound from the stereo speakers faded in and out.
A year from now, the parishioners of this small country parish in the North Georgia mountains, near the South Carolina state line, hope to worship in a new church, where a wall of windows will overlook Black Rock Mountain.
“I’m looking forward to more people, more families to come in and worship and outreach more to the community,” said Doug Starzec, the parish council chairperson.
The new church will double the size of the 1960s-era building, ensuring there will be less of a chance of people having to sit in the parish kitchen during the celebration of Mass.
Some 80 miles to the south, on that same day, another celebration was getting underway in Athens as parishioners at St. Joseph Church threw a party to mark one of the biggest events in the community’s 125-year history.
The two Catholic communities celebrated on Sunday, April 6, the beginning of major church construction projects.
St. Joseph Church, Athens, To Build At New Site
In Athens, several hundred adults and young people had a picnic feast, inflatable games, live music. Local elected officials, including state Rep. Doug McKillip and Athens Mayor Heidi Davison, attended. The festivities kicked off with a bagpiper and ended with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory using the sword from a member of the Knights of Columbus to cut a cake.
“We are a church in expansion mode,” said Archbishop Gregory, adding that the archdiocese is putting the pieces together to plan wisely for the future.
Craig Linkous, 45, was walking away from the inflatable games, holding on to the hand of his daughter, Isabelle. He and his wife, Jeanie, joined the parish nine years ago. They have three children, Isabelle, 6, Olivia, 4, and Nathaniel, a year and a half.
“My wife and I think it’s exciting to see the construction from the very beginning and be a part of it,” he said.
Linkous said the existing facilities at the parish are too cramped for both school and church functions.
The crowd of people marking the occasion is a good thing, he said. “It shows a lot of people are excited about the future.”
The Athens Catholic community dates back to 1873 when the mission served 23 counties. It is moving out of its city center home on Prince Avenue, where land was purchased in 1881.
The new campus of close to 40 acres is about five miles out of town, on the border of Clarke and Oconee counties. Four new buildings are proposed. The new church will seat about 1,000 people. The new school will serve about 450 students. A multipurpose building, which will be the first building erected, and a parish center are also to be built.
The price tag for the complete project is expected to range from $27 million to $30 million as the buildings go up during the next several years. When the time is right, the current property will be sold to defray the costs.
The construction timeline appears to be flexible. The project Web site said the current church facilities in downtown Athens will be used for the next few years. The first stage and the construction of the first building is expected to take up to two years.
Hussey, Gay, Bell & DeYoung, engineers and architects of Gainesville, are designing the multipurpose building, athletic fields and infrastructure.
Archbishop Gregory said the parish wrestled with how to handle the growth for a long time. Now there is a beautiful piece of property and it is a special moment in the parish history, he said.
“It is God who sees what the future can be if we cooperate with him,” he said.
School principal Donavan Yarnall, who is finishing his first year as head of the 320-student school, said the new facilities would help the parochial school’s educational mission.
“I’m looking forward to the upgraded facility. My kids have recess on a blacktop. It’ll be nice to have the facility and the educational tools to continue the excellence we have been doing,” he said.
However, he’ll have a bit of a wait. The best-case scenario is the new school campus opens in the 2015 school year, when current eighth-graders are approaching the end of their college careers.
Amanda Wilson, 28, grew up in the parish.
“This is a big deal for us. Our parish has grown so much over the past several years. We have no room left,” said Wilson, a former teacher who is on the communication committee for the Forward in Faith planning project.
Father David McGuinness, the pastor of the Athens church, said the day was a milestone for the community.
“I feel blessed indeed to be called to serve this faith community. Together we can confidently continue to do the Lord’s work and reap his bountiful harvest,” said Father McGuinness in the groundbreaking day bulletin.
St. Helena, Clayton, Breaks Ground For New Church
Up in the mountains of Clayton, church members walked gingerly on the slick dirt, which just a day earlier was puddled with water.
The land with the mountain view is to be home to a new church. It’ll seat some 250 people.
The current building dates to 1961 and is packed during the summer when vacationers come to relax in the mountains. It was built by good-hearted parishioners at St. Helena Church in Center Square, Pa., who took up the effort to help what was then a mission territory with few Catholics. The church was built for between $17,000 and $20,000 before it was dedicated and named in honor of the benefactors in 1961. (The contributions from the Pennsylvania church would be about $146,000 in today’s dollars.)
Expansion on the current one-acre property isn’t possible because it would take up all the parking lot. As it is, cars line the shoulder of the two-lane road and fill up the lots of nearby businesses at Mass times.
Msgr. Luis Zarama, a vicar general for the Atlanta Archdiocese, attended the ceremony. He returned to the community where he was pastor for 10 years.
It’s been a long project, but the community has much to look forward to, he said. Msgr. Zarama recalled how on every field trip to inspect prospective land it rained. He said the new church would be a beautiful place where people can gather for the Eucharist.
“I’m so glad. I’m so happy for them that they are breaking ground,” he said.
It took the parish families six years of planning to get to the point where church leaders could toss the dirt with golden shovels. The cost of the new church is budgeted at $1.5 million, and the parish has collected pledges from 201 families of $1.2 million. The community also hopes to construct a social hall on the land in the future.
The church is led by Father Abel Guerrero-Orta. He is also the pastor of St. Mark Church in Clarkesville.
Betty Weber, a parishioner since moving to the area in 1980, said the new building has been a long time coming.
“It means a lot. We’ve been waiting,” said Weber, 80.
She said the parish hopes to attract more young people now that there will be room for everyone.
Jerry Doyle, 65, and his wife, Regina, drove six hours from Hilton Head, S.C., to mark the occasion at their former parish.
Doyle, a retired firefighter, was part of the team of parishioners charged with finding suitable flat land that satisfied construction experts with the Atlanta Archdiocese. These 10 acres of land, which have a distinct slope, are what he called “Rabun County flat.” Still it is not physical perfection that is driving the church forward, but the bursting seams of a community that has outgrown its worship space.
“It gives them more room to worship. It allows the church to grow,” he said.
Ron Spencer, a leader in the building community, said the current facility has lived beyond its usefulness.
“We are really in desperate need. It’s really a necessity,” he said.
“We’ve moved forward and we’ve moved backward,” Spencer said, and now everybody is excited about the future.
The church building is to be completed next spring. Ron Cantrell Construction Inc., a well-known firm in erecting churches, is handling the church construction. The firm recently completed the new St. Matthew Church, Winder.
Starzec attends church with his wife, Meg, and their four children.
“It means we’re growing as a church. Catholicism is spreading through northeast Georgia,” he said.