By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 1, 2009
Do you think the pews are getting a little bit more crowded? Parking harder to find?
The number of Catholics in North Georgia continues to climb. Catholics are growing faster than the overall population in the Peach State as the official count of Catholics in the archdiocese climbs to 750,000, up from 650,000.
The new numbers could make Atlanta the 20th largest diocese in the country, falling between the dioceses of Pittsburgh and Buffalo, two Catholic-rich regions. Currently, Atlanta is in 26th place.
The population boost shows how Catholics are remaking the Bible belt. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has said he has dedicated eight new larger church buildings since 2005 so parishes could handle the influx of worshippers.
The new figures, which include Catholics not registered in parishes, come from the archdiocesan planning process, which is to guide the church on where best to direct resources and how best to serve its people. Parishes are being encouraged to look in their backyards and reach out to attract Catholics who don’t belong to a church. The newly available population information is to be used by pastors and parishes to review their programs to ensure they are welcoming newcomers and have good evangelizing programs. Later, a parish may need to review its facilities to accommodate new worshippers.
“There appear to be many more sheep for our archbishop to shepherd,” wrote Msgr. Joe Corbett, vicar general, to parish leaders.
Hispanics are now neck and neck with whites in making up the largest share of Catholics in the 69-county Atlanta Archdiocese, according to new data being distributed to parishes by the planning department.
The figures, which look at the Catholic population in light of race and ethnicity as well as location, estimate that Hispanics are 45.7 percent of the Catholic population. The second largest group is identified as white, which makes up 44.3 percent. The numbers are close enough to the margin of error to be equal.
Other members of the archdiocese include blacks and Asians, who make up 5.5 percent and 4.2 percent of the Catholic Church here, respectively, according to the report.
“We’re a minority archdiocese,” said Sal Arias, of the archdiocesan Research and Planning Department.
Catholics from Asia and Latin America are largely behind the growth, said Arias.
There are more than a dozen Georgia counties where Spanish speakers make up the majority of Catholics, according to the study.
Arias said the Hispanic growth was more spread out across the archdiocese than expected. It has been most pronounced in counties with healthy economic growth in the past years, he said.
The counties with the highest percentage of Hispanic Catholics are Whitfield, on the Tennessee line, and Hall, northeast of Gwinnett. In both counties, more than 70 percent of Catholics are believed to be Hispanic, he said.
Arias said the current economic upheaval would likely change the population numbers, but the figure already reflects a leveling off of undocumented Hispanic workers.
At the same time, Hispanic people only make up some 18 percent of registered parishioners in the archdiocese. That shows there are many more Hispanics, who are likely Catholic, but who either do not attend a church or attend but are not registered.
“We have a lot more people to go get,” said Peter Faletti, a consultant to the planning project from the North Highland Group.
The survey showed hotspots of people who are estimated to be unregistered Catholics: surrounding Dalton; Gainesville; Gwinnett County, around the I-85 corridor; and in the Forest Park/Riverdale area, south of Atlanta. The same areas are growing the quickest.
Asian immigrants are also fueling the boost.
Filipino, Korean and Vietnamese are the Asian nationalities that have increased the most here. And Catholics are well represented in those cultures. Nearly 80 percent of Filipinos in the United States are Catholic, as are 50 percent of Koreans and 30 percent of Vietnamese.
Those ethnic groups live in and around metro Atlanta, Arias said.
The data relied on various government and private sources to count or estimate the population, from the 2000 U.S. Census and Georgia Department of Human Resources to the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Landscape Survey and The Association of Religion Data Archives for Evangelical Congregation Membership Reports.