By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 9, 2009
Hundreds of parishioners of St. Helena Church crowded the Civic Center in Clayton on Sunday, April 5, to celebrate Palm Sunday.
In a show of solidarity with the Catholic community, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory led the congregation—more than 400 strong—in the Mass, as the faithful held palm leaves to mark the start of Holy Week and recall Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem that leads to his death.
It was the archbishop’s first visit to the community that in March suffered a blow when its newly built church was wrecked by arson. The mission had planned to move in and celebrate Palm Sunday in the church, which will need $400,000 worth of repair.
“When tragedy touches one community, we all are impacted. I wanted this community to know that they are and will remain very much in the prayers and hearts of the entire local church,” wrote the archbishop in remarks. “I want them to know that they are not alone in their sorrow and disappointment.”
Leaders said Catholics in Clayton were happy to have Archbishop Gregory there.
“It was very uplifting. It was just the thing we needed,” said Ron Spencer, the leader of the church building committee.
“People are always happy to see him at this difficult time,” said Father Abel Guerrero-Orta. “There was a message of hope,” he said, adding that people need to be reminded that Christians believe there is something else after suffering.
These past weeks have been difficult, but there will be better news down the road, the pastor said.
“We have to wait a little bit more. Now, we have hope. We are waiting for the new building,” he said.
Parishioners filled the seats at the Clayton Civic Center since the existing 1960s church building would have been too small to hold the gathering. They combined the usual two Sunday Masses into one. Readings and songs were in both English and Spanish.
Accompanying the archbishop was vicar general Msgr. Luis Zarama, a popular former pastor at this church in Rabun County, about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta.
In his homily, the archbishop said a theme of Holy Week is how people make choices in the face of life’s events. Peter, Pilate, Judas were at crossroads when they decided what step to take, and often they were wrong, he said.
“Only Jesus made the right choice this week. Only Christ realized that there was only one choice and that was to do the will of his Father,” he said.
Joining the archbishop at the altar were Father Guerrero-Orta and Msgr. Zarama. Deacon Richard Marinchak assisted at the Mass.
Following the afternoon Mass, Spencer, the archbishop and other church leaders toured the fire-damaged building.
The archbishop wrote he was grateful that no one was hurt in the arson. “I also felt sorry for the perpetrators who wanted to hurt the church’s community. It was a sad sight.”
Spencer said the archbishop was sincere in his concern and also direct as he told the community to acknowledge the alleged crime but move on from it.
Father Guerrero-Orta said a new goal is to complete the work in time for the celebration of the feast day of St. Helena in late August.
In fact, the renovation is underway, five weeks after the early morning March 1 fire. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation found gasoline at the cross-topped building and determined an arsonist started the fire.
Initially, authorities looked at electrical work as the cause of the flames. Authorities are now offering a $10,000 reward for information about the arson.
Demolition and debris removal work has been completed. The building, now surrounded by a fence, will need to undergo renovations paid for by insurance, according to Steve Brown, of Catholic Mutual, Atlanta.
Spencer said the building committee is looking at installing a security system for the building, an expense that had not been discussed in the past.