By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published February 12, 2009
Linking the old and new, members of the congregation at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church began their procession into a new church by starting inside the one where they have worshipped for 50 years.
The crowd that gathered in the older church on Jan. 24 showed why the parish needed a new one.
The pews, the narthex and the aisles were completely packed with excited parishioners as they prepared for the Mass of Dedication, the culmination of many events held for the parish’s 50th anniversary.
“This is a day of rejoicing,” Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory exclaimed.
Then nearly 1,200 parishioners went outside and lined the walkway as the archbishop and more than 20 priests and deacons led them from their church on a hill into their new church just below it.
The priestly procession was preceded by a combination of IHM choirs, including a 60-voice adult choir, a 30-voice children’s choir and a hand-bell choir, who walked through the crowd singing “How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place.”
As the archbishop approached the doors to the new church, representatives from CDH Partners, Inc., the architectural firm that worked with the parish on the project, ceremonially presented the blueprints to the archbishop, while representatives of the Van Winkle Construction Co. handed over a book bearing the names of all the men and women who constructed the building.
Parishioners then followed the priests and slowly marched in to the sounds of joyful trumpets and a festive organ.
As they entered, they saw a crucifix, which features the corpus from the crucifix in the older church now placed on a beautiful piece of Tau-shaped black walnut with gold leaf accents, symbolizing the fusion of the parish’s long history and its blossoming future.
Behind the crucifix, large organ pipes stretched to the ceiling and filled the new sanctuary with its bold tone. IHM contracted with A.E. Schlueter Pipe Organ Co. to custom build the $500,000 instrument, which is a pipe-digital combination organ.
The church will seat more than 800 people in pews and has additional flexible seating capacity in the narthex.
The baptismal font, which Archbishop Gregory stopped to bless before proceeding with the Mass of Dedication, is positioned near the back of the church. In the large square font, which used Chi-Rio stone from the baptistery in the old church, holy water flows down the sides in the shape of a cross.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, in this solemn rite of dedication, let us ask the Lord our God to bless this water created by his hand,” the archbishop said as he prayed over the water. “It is a sign of our repentance, a reminder of our baptism and a symbol of the cleansing of these walls and this altar.”
After the archbishop’s blessing, he and his fellow priests took water from the font, walked throughout the church and sprinkled the people and the walls, the altar and the ambo, and then the Mass continued.
The $8 million project began in 2001 with the first meeting of the building committee. An earlier strategic planning initiative had been used to discern the needs and wants of the parish. A common theme was the need for new facilities.
According to Barbara Wiley, who chaired the building committee, the need brought with it lots of discussion, since the Briarcliff Road property on which the church and parish school are situated has limited space. The parish was established in 1958.
Original plans called for the building of new offices in the middle of the campus, since this was really the only place where new buildings could be constructed. However, after further discussion, the committee decided to build a new church at that site and renovate existing buildings to create the space they needed for other uses.
Two capital campaigns were the main source of support, the first taking place from 2004-2007 and the second from 2008-2010.
“We far surpassed many of the original expectations,” Wiley said about the campaigns.
Many parishioners also took the responsibility of raising money into their own hands.
The Hispanic community at the parish often held “Lunch on the Green,” cooking meals outside after Sunday Mass for others to purchase. All of the proceeds went to the building fund.
“More than a hundred parishioners have been involved” with the committee throughout the years and countless more helped in other ways, said Wiley, calling it a “widespread effort.”
During his homily, the archbishop commented on the building process.
“Building any new church requires an awful lot of patience,” Archbishop Gregory began. “But who am I to tell this community what it already knows so well? Yet the patience that it takes in putting up an edifice is a very complicated process.”
“The Lord Jesus himself is the master church builder of all times,” he continued. “He too went through a long process in indicating, forming and shaping the Church that he desired to construct. The Church that Christ builds, however, is never identified exclusively with any building of mere bricks and mortar. His Church is built of people—ordinary people like you and me.”
Archbishop Gregory gave a portion of his homily in Spanish, addressing that significant part of the parish congregation.
“The Church that Christ builds is comprised of stones of many different shapes and sizes—of many different types of people who speak all of the languages and follow all of the cultures of the human family,” he said. “The Church that Christ builds welcomes all who seek membership therein. The Church that Christ builds does not reject anyone who ever longs to be a part of this structure of faith, hope and love.”
The Rite of Dedication followed as Archbishop Gregory anointed the new altar with chrism and the pastor, Father James Schillinger, and other parish priests went throughout the sanctuary anointing the walls and candles.
The archbishop then incensed the altar while four young women from the parish took bowls of incense and slowly carried them up and down the aisles, filling the gathering space with the sweet scent.
Candles were lit one by one representing the “light of Christ shone forth through the Church.” The lights in the church were then turned on as many parishioners grabbed their cameras and snapped a memory of the day.
At the end of the Mass, Father Schillinger went to the podium, but said he wanted to keep words to a minimum and continue to “let the Lord speak through the beauty of this place and the liturgy.”
“I am so proud of this parish and what we have done together,” he said.
“This is just a building,” he added. “We are the church. We are the most important part.”
He thanked the building committee, the organizers and the parishioners for their help, support and patience throughout the long, arduous process.
Then the priest mentioned that the last time the archbishop celebrated a dedication Mass, at St. Peter Chanel Church in Roswell, he announced that the pastor was moving to another parish.
“I trust that is not going to happen today,” Father Schillinger said with a smile as he looked in Archbishop Gregory’s direction.
“No, you are going to stay long enough to pay for it,” Archbishop Gregory quipped, drawing an outburst of laughter from the crowd.
The large procession that led parishioners into the church also led them out to the triumphant sounds of the choir, which put in many hours of rehearsal for the big day.
“I’ve never been more proud of a choir,” said Jeff Bush, the director of liturgy and music.
“They never complained. They did it gladly,” he said of their 16 rehearsals.
Many parishioners stayed after the Mass to look more closely at the church.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” asked Mary Elliot, a parishioner and event planner for the day, about a bronze statue of Mary and Jesus, located on the right side of the church. “You don’t see Mary with Jesus at that age too often.”
Sculpted by Indiana artist Nick Ring, the statue is a life-sized figure of the Blessed Mother and Jesus as a young man. The piece of art is an original composition that was commissioned for IHM.
Wiley said that the new church, which has been described as “transitional” in its style, incorporates many traditional themes, such as the placement of the baptismal font and the cruciform shape of the sanctuary.
“What we were trying to do was bring some traditional elements into current architecture,” she said.
Several stained glass windows are planned for the church. Dennis Kelly, project manager for Catholic Construction Services, said installation of the windows will begin next month.
An apse window ensemble will include five Roman arch windows, each representing a liturgical season.
There will also be two transept windows: one in the south transept featuring the “Jesse Tree,” which symbolizes Jesus’ ancestry in the line of King David, and a Pentecost window in the north transept, depicting Mary with her hands extended in the orans position, an ancient posture for prayer.
Immediately above the Pentecost window will be the Holy Spirit window. Vibrant reds, blues and golds will be used for the window, which will include a dove and seven golden stars, representing the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Father Schillinger said this window will be dedicated to Wiley for all that she has done to aid the building process.
For her and other parishioners, the Mass was a beautiful and memorable celebration of the history, and future, of this Atlanta parish.
“It was overwhelming,” Wiley said. “By far, it was the most moving religious ceremony I have ever been to.”
“It was beautiful,” said Elliot. “Everything flowed so well.”
“There is a tremendous sense of pride and joy every time I walk into the building,” Bush added. He said he also feels like the community is leaving something truly special for the generations to come.
“We give thanks to the past, but also look forward to another 50 years and beyond,” said Father Schillinger.
“Thank you to all who helped plan this church, those who put in untold hours in overseeing the construction and for those who have sacrificed to make this church possible,” Father Schillinger wrote in a letter to the parishioners. “May the Lord continue to bless our parish with the presence of his Holy Spirit, so that we, in turn, will continue to grow in unity and strength of faith.”