By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 15, 2010
St. Michael Church welcomed about 5,000 people to Easter services at its new pastoral center in a heavily Hispanic enclave near downtown Gainesville, with many walking or riding bikes to services. And since opening last October, the all-Spanish St. Michael Pastoral Center, located about five miles away from the parish, has been drawing some 3,000 every weekend to its four Masses—largely immigrants returning to the church.
“It has reached out to people who were not even attending St. Michael’s because of the distance. There is a big number of people who don’t have cars, and we see them walking to church,” said the center’s coordinator of liturgy and stewardship Diana Mendoza. “A lot are very humble. They are so glad we are in the neighborhood, just being there.”
The parish leases space at 622 Shallowford Road in a strip mall where other churches are also located. In the vestibule stands a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The opening of the pastoral center is phase one of St. Michael’s master expansion plan. Other goals are to build a new facility for its school of religion and a 1,000-seat worship space for the parish to replace its 500-seat church, for which it is about to launch a capital campaign. Even with the pastoral center, the parish remains overcrowded with its 5,000 families, about 70 percent Hispanic.
Contributing to the growth, St. Michael’s evangelization efforts have included door-to-door visitations, retreats and prayer groups. For example, a family takes home a Guadalupe image for a week and prays the rosary, inviting other families to participate. The parish “is very overcrowded. It is a good thing. There is a lot of desire to come to church and to live the faith. We have done a lot of evangelization that has motivated people to wake up their faith and come back to church,” said Father Fabio Sotelo, St. Michael’s pastor since 2005. “More people have joined us (at the pastoral center) coming to church, many un-churched people. Once they know they have the opportunity to go to church in the States, they come.”
Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama dedicated the pastoral center in February. “It was a great day, a beautiful celebration, and with all the police, board of education members and city officials it was an affirmation of our work in Gainesville,” said Father Sotelo. “There is a very strong desire to come and pray. It’s good for them and for St. Michael’s, and also it’s good for Gainesville.”
Many of the poor, predominantly Mexican immigrants, have struggled to find work during the recession and have found solace at the pastoral center, continued the Colombian-American pastor. In response, the center now has a food bank that distributes over 2,000 pounds of food monthly. It will begin ESL instruction in the fall. And the pastoral center is trying to rent additional space to start a school of religion—having just had 27 children baptized at Easter. Meanwhile, the community is raising money to cover its expenses.
Those in need include women with children whose husbands have been deported. “That brings a lot of needy families. We have tried to help and started an emergency fund,” said the pastor, noting that the North Georgia Detention Center opened around the same time as the pastoral center.
“Faith is not only about prayer, it’s about doing,” said Father Sotelo. “In the midst of turmoil the opening of the pastoral center is the only sign of hope for them … They live on faith and have hope in their lives. The pastoral center has helped to bring people together. It’s a great thing that we are able to open this center. For many of the people who are in need of support, people facing many challenges, it’s very positive for them during this difficult time.”
Mendoza recalled one man who had previously avoided church because he felt uncomfortable to attend alone with his family being back in Mexico. But he showed up, and she invited him to join the usher ministry. Since then he has grown in faith and taken small steps toward sobriety. “Since October this ministry has changed him.”
Mendoza is grateful for Father Sotelo’s determined effort to get permission from the archdiocese to open the center, having seen such a need over the past decade.
“He is the one who really made it happen, just reaching out to the people who weren’t coming. And they feel comfortable coming,” she said. “You can see their faces, how happy they are when they come in.”
And, being bilingual, she feels called here as well. “I’ve grown spiritually in my 21 years at St. Michael’s. I just feel I need to be where people need more guidance and I can help.”