Published November 13, 2008
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory banged on the locked church doors with his hooked crosier, symbolically reopening the refurbished St. Lawrence Church.
Waves of parishioners followed him in as members of the Gwinnett County parish celebrated the end of the 15-month project on Oct. 29.
“It’s home,” said Jan Miller, a parishioner for three years.
An estimated 1,200 people overflowed into the aisles and entryway for the dedication at the church at 319 Grayson Highway and to mark the end of the $4.8 million project.
During the dedication Mass, the archbishop bathed the altar with blessed chrism oil. Father Al Jowdy, the pastor, joined former pastors to anoint the walls in four places to represent the four corners of the world.
Archbishop Gregory during his homily applauded the works of the community at St. Lawrence Church. He said churches are “living reminders” of the need of all to honor God.
“Surely God will be praised and is glorified in this splendid new edifice—but the building must also become a sacramental reminder that you are the Church—the structure that is most precious to the Lord. The people of God are themselves an edifice of irreplaceable worth to the heart of God himself,” he said.
The new church will serve as “a beacon” for Catholics and the faithful will gather “to recall your dignity as God’s people,” he told the crowd.
“People build and renew churches to serve not only as places where they gather, but as a visible symbol of the dignity that they enjoy as the people that God has called his own—for so indeed you are,” he said.
St. Lawrence was the first Catholic mission in Gwinnett County. It opened in 1963 and at its third anniversary, the 30 families worshipped in a former appliance store. Parishioners built the first church in 1973. In 1987, a new church was constructed.
Meanwhile, reflecting the growing diversity of the county, the parish began celebrating Mass in Spanish and the church community helped refugees settle in the area.
In 2004, the parish numbered 3,000 households. Church leaders started to look ahead.
Today, the new building seats 900, close to double the old worship space. The redone church is part of a renovation that also included new pastoral offices, 150-seat parish hall, nursery, and meeting space that surrounds an open-air courtyard.
In designing the church, architects kept most of the original building size, but razed a wall to expand. Seats were reconfigured as the altar moved so it faced people as they entered the sanctuary.
Parish leaders wanted art with ancient Christian designs to play a part in the worship.
Father Jowdy said the community took seriously the words of the U.S. bishops when they called “worthy art an essential, integral element in the sacred beauty of a church building.”
He said the community wanted to install art that enhances prayer.
Seven new stained glass windows feature the work of renowned artist Benedictine monk Brother Martin Erspamer, of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. He also designed the altar, ambo, presider’s chair and altar candles.
The seven vivid windows display the days of creation and God the Father.
“In the day, they are absolutely spectacular,” Father Jowdy said.
Even the building’s details echo the creation story’s emphasis on the natural world with exposed wood beams, the earthy tones of tiles. And much of the tile was installed by Hispanic parishioners who lay tile professionally, a $125,000 gift of labor to the project.
Entering the church, worshippers pass by a large baptismal font based on an ancient design, said Father Jowdy.
A person being baptized will walk three steps to enter and three steps to walk out of the water, which represent the three times that Satan is rejected in baptismal promises and the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of the Trinity, respectively. The font is octagonal, a design representing the seven days in which God created the world and the eighth day of Jesus’ resurrection.
Another addition is renovated cast bronze Stations of the Cross originally designed for St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minn.
The parish developed its plans with help from Conventual Franciscan Father David Stachurski and Jim Brodi of Ecclesia Liturgical Design, LLC. The project architect is CDH Partners, Inc. of Marietta. The builder is Lusk & Co., Inc. of Alpharetta.
Longtime parishioners Verna and Cleveland Rivers said there had been excitement around the parish as the dedication got closer.
“Everyone’s been looking forward to it. I’ve been talking about it all week to my co-workers,” said Verna Rivers.
Her husband said the day marks a new start for the parish. “It’s like a renaissance almost,” he said.
Jan Miller, along with others, helped get the place ready by scrubbing the floor.
“It’s like Opening Day. It’s like the World Series. It’s like the Super Bowl,” but better because of the celebration of Mass, she said.
Ken Chrzanoski and his daughter, Courtney, were in the crowds standing for the Mass in the entryway.
“It just seemed like something we’d remember,” said Courtney about why she chose to attend.
A touching moment was seeing the line of priests that had served the community over the years return that night, she said.
“It kind of showed the unity of the church,” she said.
For Ken Chrzanoski, the night was special because there was a feeling of accomplishment in the parish. During the project, the community prayed in the gym, where folks sat on folding chairs without kneelers.
“We joked that everybody would forget to kneel,” he said.