By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 8, 2008
From early Lebanese families settling in this rural Southern town to converts who have found their spiritual home here, St. Mary Church is adapting to urban sprawl while retaining traces of its early heritage through those still around to share its tales.
Msgr. Terry Young came to the area initially in 2001 as pastor of St. James Church in McDonough, when St. Mary was its mission church. He “downsized” later to serve only the mission.
On Jan. 1 this year, St. Mary’s, with close to 250 families, became a parish and Msgr. Young was assigned as its first pastor.
Msgr. Young praised the early Catholics who came to the region.
“I think when we explore missionary history in this area, particularly in the southern part of the archdiocese, one common denominator has been the existence of the shopkeeper class that set up in small towns. They came to small towns where Catholics did not have a presence, and (they) were not prepared to accept other faiths.”
Even given the strength of Protestant denominations in these towns, the attitude of early Catholics was “if there isn’t a Catholic church here then we’re going to have one,” he said.
“We owe a debt of gratitude for their impatience not to acquiesce to the fact that they did not have a church here.”
He also acknowledged the work of Redemptorist priests who came to Griffin and set up missions in other cities like McDonough, Barnesville and Thomaston.
Descendants of early Catholic families in Jackson—with surnames such as Glidewell, Patterson and Deraney—still number among the parishioners of St. Mary.
Becky Glidewell is the sixth of 10 children born to Marcella and Hugh Glidewell, who moved to Jackson in 1946. Her father, who was not Catholic, managed a local restaurant and motel.
“When we first came, there was no church,” Glidewell said. “We met in homes and traveled to Sacred Heart Church (in Griffin) for catechism lessons.”
Once a week Glidewell’s mother would load up her children and any others in the family station wagon to travel to Sacred Heart Church about 17 miles away where the School Sisters of Notre Dame provided lessons. Few obstacles came in the way of her mother’s desire to pass on the Catholic faith to her children—even small allowances taken for granted today. Glidewell retold the story of her mother’s request of a priest at a time when the pre-Communion fast began at midnight.
“She was responsible for getting eight children ready for Mass in the morning. She asked him if it would be okay for her to have a cup of black coffee (before Mass). He refused.”
On Sundays, she and her mother and siblings attended Mass in the homes of other Jackson Catholics. One family, the Deraneys, fashioned a chapel in their basement where Redemptorist priests assigned to Sacred Heart Church would celebrate Mass for about 30 Jackson residents.
It was during Bishop Francis E. Hyland’s visit to the basement chapel to confer the sacrament of confirmation that the idea for a Catholic church in Jackson came to light.
“Afterward everybody was invited up for refreshments and time to talk,” Glidewell recalled. “Some ladies got on the bishop’s case about wanting a church.”
Eventually the Catholic Extension Society assisted with the effort. In 1960 a chapel called St. Mary was built at Covington and Lyons streets. More of the area’s Catholics began to attend Mass regularly. Glidewell recalled one Christmas when they borrowed chairs from the funeral home to accommodate an expected crowd. “The place was full. All the chairs were needed.”
One who also remembers Christmas Day Mass back when it was still in the Deraneys’ basement is Jerry McLaurin, a cradle Catholic born in Griffin down the road from his current parish of St. Mary.
“I went to Sacred Heart Church and Sacred Heart School from kindergarten through eighth grade,” he said. He is knowledgeable of the early beginnings of St. Mary as he traveled with his parish priest in Griffin to Jackson, Thomaston and Barnesville as an altar boy.
“For many Christmases I would go along and be the choir,” he recalled with a chuckle. Starting at about age 9 he and his sister spent four or five Christmas mornings in the basement of David Deraney’s home.
“That was back in 1956. We sang the standard Christian Christmas songs,” he said, adding that his favorite part was the breakfast served in Thomaston once they finished their spiritual tour of duty.
It took his wife to eventually bring McLaurin to Jackson more permanently.
“I ended up marrying a girl from Jackson,” he said of his wife, Gail, and added a story about their courtship. “(Gail’s) family helped to finance the First Baptist Church (in Jackson) and so when her mother found out I was Catholic she told me, ‘I’d rather her marry a good Catholic than a bad Baptist.’”
The way McLaurin tells it these days, Gail is now “a better Catholic than I’ve ever been.”
McLaurin also mused about a Redemptorist priest, a Scotsman, who took his vow of poverty seriously.
“The Deraneys had a department store with men’s clothing and the priests could have anything they wanted. But Father went so far as to put cardboard over the soles of his worn-out shoes when he could have had a new pair for free.”
McLaurin credited the priest’s miserly ways, however, with having funds available to start the campaign to build the first small church.
Being a student at the only Catholic school in the area, McLaurin recalled earlier days of how sports often garnered respect for Catholics among his Protestant peers on the playing field or basketball court.
Msgr. Young also explained the contribution Lebanese Catholic families, in particular, made in assimilating Catholics into local communities where Catholics had never lived before.
“They’re people who belong to the wider community—from the Middle East—and they were merchants, meaning they had to be socially involved in the community,” he said. “Because of their businesses they got to be involved. The Glidewells and the Deraneys, they humanized being Catholic for others in the community who were really hostile to the Catholic Church. They still thought that Catholics were pagans, ‘but look,’ they thought, ‘they are people like us.’”
Glidewell said being Catholic proved difficult early on. “It was sort of one of those things where Catholics were looked down on. It wasn’t easy living in a town where everyone was Baptist or Methodist.”
When Glidewell was young, Catholics were not allowed to attend services at other churches, but some school-aged Catholics joined the public school’s glee club, which performed at other churches.
“Mother never let us,” Glidewell said. “We’d hear comments like, ‘they did it, why don’t you?’ It made it hard on the rest of us.”
Her parents had 10 children, which also fostered negative comments. But Glidewell sees things differently, “It’s a wonderful life being in a big family.”
Glidewell left Jackson for over 10 years to pursue a nursing career and returned in 1981 when her father had cancer. He eventually died and she moved in with her mother, who was known by many as “a saint on earth.”
In 2006, at 90, her mother passed away.
“Everybody knew her,” said Glidewell. “Everybody felt like they were losing their mother.”
One such person was Brenda Patterson, who at age 16 liked to drive to church early before Sunday Mass to hear “Miss Glidewell” and a few others pray the rosary.
“There was such peace listening to them,” she said. “I love that part of the church, the tradition of it. So much of what we do makes me feel much more a part of what happened way back.”
Now, she added, “Every time I hear a ‘Hail Mary’ I think of Miss Glidewell.”
She commended the woman and the parish’s other matriarchs whose prayers on the parish’s prayer chain would “miraculously” come true. “They were just godly women. … They had so much faith.”
Patterson married her husband, Tom, in what was “the first big wedding” in the new church structure dedicated in 2001. “Everybody wanted to come. … The reception was insane.”
The couple now has three children—all were baptized in the new church. Following in the footsteps of those who came before her, Patterson is involved in passing along the faith to those younger, particularly to the teens.
“If you don’t cater to them then they won’t show any interest in growing (their faith),” she said.
Unlike her early days when one “didn’t get to know” priests, Msgr. Young is “awesome,” particularly in addressing children.
“Since Father Terry, there’s a whole lot more people. With the growth of the church, the word gets out.”
The growth has led to the need for more classrooms but has not hampered the close-knit feel of the community in Patterson’s eyes. “There are people I don’t even know, but there’s still the feeling that you know everybody, like we’re family.”
A Texan by birth, Emily Ryan came to Jackson in 1988 after marrying her late husband, Pat, who was attracted to Lake Jackson through a friend. Before long, the couple’s involvement at the parish “mushroomed.”
Both served as lectors, eucharistic ministers and catechists. Ryan serves this year as a catechist for second-graders waiting excitedly for their first Communion.
“I really enjoy it. I forget their innocence,” said the special education teacher. The class recently practiced for their first Communion. “It’s funny to watch them because they’re so excited that they overemphasize what they’re supposed to do.”
Ryan remains grateful for the support she received following her husband’s death in 2004. The community was “wonderful,” including the Knights of Columbus.
“They’re great about coming out to do things,” she added. “They help you keep up your yard. … They’ll do anything.”
The Knights at St. Mary began as part of the St. James council but became their own council with 39 members after the new church building opened. Today the council numbers about 68 men. Mike Gozdick, presently ending his four-year term as the district deputy, spouted off a number of activities the council organizes that include frequent pancake breakfasts, a community free-throw competition, support of a local pregnancy resource center, financial sponsorship of an archdiocesan seminarian and drives like one conducted recently to supply police officers with stuffed animals to give to children affected by domestic disputes.
One of its most unique fundraisers was an opportunity the young council came upon to supplement its $45 of seed money from the state Knights of Columbus. An acquaintance of Gozdick’s was looking for workers for a souvenir booth when NASCAR racing comes to the area. “It was like God saying, ‘Here, Mike, here’s the money.’”
The year the men began they were “plain Jane behind the counter.” Since then they’ve worn caps with ‘K of C’ on the front, but “people thought it meant Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Now they wear aprons with the words ‘Knights of Columbus’ on them and welcome frequent comments from other knights coming to the area for the races, some from up north in “Catholic country” where the Knights of Columbus are much better known.
Gozdick said one misses out on the fullness of church life “if you don’t get involved in the church, if what you do is come every Sunday for 1 to 1 ½ hours and then go home.”
While there exist other Catholic men’s groups the Knights offer a solid structure and fellowship. “Join the Knights. It helps keep people who might get a little off, back on track.”
The St. Mary’s Women’s Guild is also an active ministry that is currently directed by parishioner Janice Petrella. A Georgia native, Petrella complimented “the unique group of women” who help to raise funds as part of an outreach to Guatemala, who volunteer at the pregnancy resource center, who help to clean and prepare the church for special occasions and who hold an international night of fun and food dishes from all over the world, among other things.
“People just jump in and help,” she said. “We have the goal of helping others and helping the church. We want to build a better community—that’s what each lady strives for and we constantly seek out ladies to do that.”
The guild also participates in spiritual days of reflection. Through her involvement with the guild and other opportunities at St. Mary, Petrella has “seen my faith life grow.” It has also deepened her relationship with her husband, Jesse, over the years.
“We seemed to know each other well before, but we’ve been surprised to see how much our religion has changed us, how much closer we’ve gotten through church. … What is this? It’s God. He’s the center of everything.”
Her personal hope is for the Catholic Church to be “the beacon of light” that rekindles waning family values, she said.
“I want to make the church the best it can be,” explained Petrella, who was born into another religion but had yearned to be Catholic since her youth. She converted to Catholicism as an adult sparked by a Catholic friend who succumbed to breast cancer before Petrella’s conversion. “You don’t ever know what effect you may have on someone’s life.”
She eventually began “digging” into books on Catholicism under the eye of “open-minded” parents. “What was the attraction? It’s actually the thing people talk about the most—the ritual.”
She didn’t attend RCIA classes until after she married Jesse, who was Catholic. “I put becoming Catholic on the back burner but finally thought ‘I have to become Catholic.’ Now there was such urgency … like I was afraid to die and not be Catholic.”
Since joining the church she has “experienced phenomenal growth spiritually.”
Having been a priest for 36 years and counting, Msgr. Young spent about 25 years in education as principal for two Catholic high schools and as superintendent of Catholic schools for the archdiocese. “I would say based on my experience that for me, personally, administering a high school was more demanding than administering a parish.”
He explained by saying he was “arguably an introvert” sent to administer an institution of 1,100 adults and students under one roof. Reflecting back he understands, “that’s what was needed.”
Some of his “redeeming features,” he said, are that he tries to listen and to remain “forthright and honest.” His approach of “laying his cards on the table” is the same whether dealing with seniors planning to skip school or advising new preachers attending Jackson’s clergy meetings who want to change the public high school’s mascot of Red Devils.
Msgr. Young explained the ecumenical ties to area churches that reflect pastoral similarities as well as differences. There are two mainline Protestant churches in Jackson, Methodist and Presbyterian, but “far more dominant” are the Baptist and Pentecostal churches that set a certain tone in the area, he said.
“We work together with the Baptists to run a pregnancy resource center where we work side by side. … With that effort we have common ground.”
In the area of social justice and working with the poor, the evangelicals “are hostile” as they believe the poor are poor because they are somehow “not right with God.”
“With the Methodists, there is cooperation in working with people in need,” he said.
In general, area Catholics are well received and St. Mary’s growth is not expected to end. Msgr. Young and various parish councils will launch a capital campaign this summer to raise needed funds to expand classroom space, to build a fellowship hall with a kitchen for parish meals and a place for the choir to practice.
In tough economic times, the priest contemplated the reality of the situation.
“How to raise money? There are two ways: either you get people to buy into the vision or they recognize their pain. The pain is that there is not enough room. So it’s vision or pain.”
He recognized that many of “the movers and changers of the past” had “their big hoorah” when they built the current church. “Now the challenge is to call on others to be leaders of the church” and to pass on the faith to their children.
McLaurin, who served as chairman of the parish’s last building campaign committee, will again help with the effort. He says of the upcoming campaign, “people understand the direct relationship (new church facilities) have on the spiritual side of life. They will give what they can.”
The choir member who has graduated from the Deraneys’ basement, McLaurin knows one day he and others will enjoy a new space for choir practices, noting that singing “adds extra color to life.”
He is also confident in a faith that shores one up for a lifetime and he contemplates how some young adults today walk away, temporarily or permanently, from the heritage and teachings of a faith that sustained their parents and was handed on to them in their youth.
“People inherently have a need that, through the Catholic faith, the Christian faith, helps them get a handle on what makes life bearable. It gives us a purpose. Many people run around without a purpose. We all have to feel we have a purpose,” he said.