By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 13, 2010
At one of the largest and most diverse parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese, Father Jim Kuczynski saw the turmoil and division that surrounds the immigration debate.
He didn’t run from it. Instead, he and parish leaders at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, faced it.
“It was a transforming experience, not just for the participants, but (it) became a movement in growing toward unity and harmony in our St. Thomas faith community,” he said.
The parish adapted the Justice for Immigrants program, developed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to spur conversation on the hot button topic.
For this work, Father Kuczynski, a priest of the LaSalette religious order, shared the 2010 Archbishop Donoghue Award that honors clergy who advocate for Catholic Charities.
As part of the Vatican-designated Year for Priests, Catholic Charities Atlanta this year honored three priests at its annual fundraiser dinner. The other honorees were Msgr. David Talley, pastor of St. John Neumann Church, Lilburn, and Msgr. Edward Dillon, pastor of Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.
Some 600 people attended the dinner. It was held on Thursday, April 15, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Mary Ellen and Scott Garrett, parishioners of St. Jude the Apostle Church, Atlanta, were the gala committee leaders. It raised nearly $300,000, according to Catholic Charities Atlanta.
The guests were treated to live musical performances by the Atlanta Lyric Theatre. The festivities also included a cocktail reception, raffle and silent auction items, and a gourmet seated dinner.
Msgr. Talley was saluted for being a “determined advocate” for social justice and Catholic Charities. He has worked in various parishes and with the Disabilities Ministry. He has also served as vocations director, chancellor and judicial vicar. He has been involved with a cross section of the agency’s services, from immigration issues and counseling to social justice.
“The honor that was given to me must be shared by all the parishioners I have worked with, as we have sought to offer ourselves in Christian witness and service,” he said.
Accepting the award, the priest said people should continue their support of Catholic Charities and reminded them “the poor are our teachers.”
Catholic Charities is opening a satellite office at the Lilburn parish. It’ll be the first permanent office for Catholic Charities staff in a parish setting.
Msgr. Talley said the presence of the agency will remind parishioners to follow the call to serve the “least of these” Jesus described in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25.
Msgr. Dillon has spearheaded efforts to help others for many years, including aiding Hispanic families at the Solidarity School and Holy Spirit Catholic Center Mission in Sandy Springs.
“The need was pretty obvious—that we had and have a large number of immigrants in the area of our parish who were not being served by any church. Many of them originally had no transportation. So, since they couldn’t come to Holy Spirit (there’s no public transportation that comes near here) we went to them, and the parish has been involved there for probably close to 10 years now,” he said.
The mission offers Spanish Mass, sacraments, religious education and faith support and also a variety of social services from adult English language and parenting classes to a food pantry, clothing and seminars on critical issues for immigrants. The school prepares Hispanic children to enter public schools with adequate English language skills to succeed.
Msgr. Dillon said Catholic Charities “may be one of the best kept secrets about the Catholic Church in North Georgia.” And people forget it provides services without regard to religion, he said.
“It is the type of program that could, and should, draw financial and volunteer support from the broader community, not just simply from the Catholic community,” he said.
Father Kuczynski said accepting the award is humbling, but he “was delighted to accept the award because it highlighted the faith and dedicated commitment of the people of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish.”
He is called a “compassionate servant leader” as he leads St. Thomas the Apostle. He arrived at this suburb of Atlanta in 2004 as the numbers of Hispanics ballooned and politicians passed restrictive immigration laws.
The church teaches respect for the dignity of immigrants, including the undocumented. It supports comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path for permanent residency for the undocumented. The position has divided the Catholic community.
“So often what is missing is simply the opportunity to get to know people and their personal stories. So often change and growth occurs when we are able to listen, learn and share with people in an interpersonal way,” he said. “We grow in awareness that we are indeed in relationship with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.”