By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 3, 2009
It was a hand-clapping, stand-up-and-sway celebration as Sts. Peter and Paul Church marked its 50th birthday.
The three-day festivities began on Thursday, Aug. 27, to kick off months of special events at this Decatur parish. Crowds filled the church for a special liturgy on Saturday, Aug. 29.
“It is a small, hidden treasure in DeKalb County,” said Alabama native Carolyn Williams, 47, who became a Catholic at the parish.
With a slogan of “United in Prayer, Building on Faith,” the community, started in 1959, is looking toward the future. Some $2 million has been raised so far to build a larger church for this parish, one of six predominantly black Catholic parishes in the archdiocese.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory joined parishioners at the standing-room-only Mass to mark the occasion. Four priests and two deacons assisted him.
Joking how friends mock each other about reaching the half-century milestone, the archbishop said the community looked “marvelous.”
In the life of a parish, 50 years is just reaching adolescence, where the growing pains are behind it and there is a future to shape, he said.
“Your future is still very much a work in progress,” he said.
The archbishop noted how when the parish was established, black Catholics could only gather at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, in downtown Atlanta, but within the lifespan of the parish those practices that divided Catholic churches by race ended.
“The faith is the same. The sacraments are the same. But today, we can celebrate the way the Lord Jesus would have wanted us to celebrate, together,” he said, as the congregation applauded.
“Today, holds a promise that we can shape even a better tomorrow,” said the archbishop. He commended the church members for their future plans to build a larger sanctuary and other facilities.
Sts Peter and Paul Church, on Tilson Road, is home to more than 450 active families that come from 98 zip codes. A school grew up alongside the parish, before it was converted from a parish school to the St. Peter Claver Regional School several years ago. It has a food pantry to serve the wider community and is home to the Haitian Catholic community.
“We pray to God in our language. We play (our) music for God,” said Michel Alce, 67, a retired bus driver and bass player in the Haitian choir.
“It is really good. We love a lot our priest,” he said.
With its welcoming hospitality, the parish attracts many newcomers.
“They just pulled me in. It was a real nice family here. It just felt like home,” said Williams, who works for Equifax credit company, as parishioners waited for the celebration luncheon to begin.
Williams’ husband, Oree, and son Jordan, a sixth-grader at the school, all attend the church.
Charmaine Johnson, who said she’s in her “early 40s” and a librarian with Fulton County, searched for the right parish when she moved here from Oklahoma.
“I just felt the openness of the people, the welcoming of the people,” said the Clarkston resident who has worshipped here for 15 years. Johnson serves as a Eucharistic minister and is a member of the Knights of Peter Claver, Ladies Auxiliary.
Johnson said she visited a few other churches before settling on this parish. “It just felt like a place I could belong. I always tell people I enjoy my parish. I enjoy worshipping on Sunday.”
Mary Reeves, a retired nurse, is a mainstay of the parish. She’s been sitting in the pews since 1961, except for a brief time when her husband’s job took her to California.
When she arrived, the community was mostly white, with a few black people. Today, the racial makeup of the community is switched, a congregation that is 98 percent black, according to a 2007 survey.
Reeves, who is 86, said she never thought about leaving her faith community as the others did.
“I like it here. I like the people. We are all people of God. It just feels like my home,” said Reeves, cradling a bouquet of roses, hydrangeas, Gerber daisies given to her by the community.
Father Eric Hill was assigned four years ago from Prince of Peace Church, in Flowery Branch, to the parish here. The new setting broadened his experiences as a priest. From serving a Hispanic community, the pastor learned Creole to celebrate the Sunday liturgy for the Haitian Catholic community.
“It bring a richness beyond a usual dynamic,” he said. The parish expands “the understanding of what it means to be a Catholic, the universality of the church beyond our usual boundaries.”
“We have everything here,” he said, from Nigerians and Congolese to West Indies natives and African-Americans.
“The black community has stayed strong. The parish has made its own steps. It is still a parish doing ministry and serving the Lord,” he said.
The event had a spirit of old home day as former pastors and a beloved sister returned.
Msgr. Henry Gracz and Father Richard Wise concelebrated the Mass. Between the two of them, they were the spiritual leaders at the parish for 29 years.
Sister Alice Daly, a sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, spent several years here serving as a pastoral assistant.
“I can see how the Lord blessed the parish. It’s like I never left,” said Sister Alice, who now lives outside Philadelphia.
“I cannot begin to tell you what an awesome experience this has been,” she said about greeting the familiar faces.