By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 11, 2010
The members of St. Luke Church recognized their presence in North Georgia at a Mass celebrating 50 years as a parish Oct. 10, while remembering the seeds of service to the local community that were planted decades ago.
Officially established as a parish in 1960, St. Luke Church was originally a mission of St. Joseph Church in Athens. Bishop Francis E. Hyland in the late 1950s asked the Glenmary Home Missioners to care for the small faith community in the Dahlonega area as a few Catholic families had settled in the area.
Glenmary Father Leonard Spanjers was appointed as the first pastor of the St. Luke community in September 1960, and the community was given official parish status for the five-county area that it served.
The humble beginnings of the parish reached a small population of around 60 Catholic families and used a rented house with a small chapel as their gathering space. Bringing families together with the opportunity to worship was only one part of their mission. St. Luke Church became a wellspring of service in Dahlonega and surrounding areas as the Glenmary priests immediately began working with the poor and those in need.
“They specialized in ministry to poor and rural areas, especially around the Appalachian Mountains,” said current pastor Father Bob Frederick. The priest reflected on the roots of the parish as the community celebrated 50 years and feels confident that the spirit of service that was established in the early years of the church can still be felt around the area today.
“With the Glenmarys, social justice was huge,” he said, adding that the original priests started a food pantry, a free medical clinic and Help in Housing, a program similar to Habitat for Humanity where local residents built and repaired houses for those in need.
Many of those services begun by the Glenmary priests in the early 1960s were brought together and continue in Dahlonega under the umbrella of the Community Helping Place, which is now a freestanding nonprofit. Offering a food pantry, free clinic, emergency financial assistance, referral support services and a family resource counselor to the residents of Lumpkin County, the aid at the Community Helping Place is made possible by the donations of individuals, businesses, churches and civic groups.
“It is the main outreach organization in Lumpkin County and was originally started out of a food pantry, which was right underneath my office,” said Father Frederick.
While some of the services that were started by the first generation of St. Luke’s priests and parishioners are no longer officially run by the church, the parishioners remain involved in these ministries to help their local brothers and sisters.
“It is still present,” said Father Frederick about the social justice focus that was found in the parish’s early days. “If you were to look at any of the nonprofits that are around … we are extremely instrumental in those. We have many people on the boards and a strong volunteer base.”
“What (the Glenmary priests) started is blossoming and the parishioners are tapped into all of that,” he said.
The initial church was bought for about $7,000 and was renovated by the Glenmarys and volunteers for nearly $8,000. The Glenmary priests ran the parish until 1982 when the responsibility for the parish was turned over to the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the first diocesan priest, Father John Henley, took over as pastor.
One of the many things that Father Frederick enjoys about the area is the diverse mix of people to serve. From the military community, to the North Georgia College and State University, to the young families, to the presence of artists and musicians, St. Luke Church has the chance to minister to people of all walks of life.
Thriving this year is the Newman Club at North Georgia College and State University, which is right down the road from the parish. Father Frederick said that it seems like over the past few years the Catholic community at the college has grown larger every year and he and the campus minister, Michael Ferrin, have taken on the role of reaching out to the young students.
As with much of the church’s history, the Newman Club can be traced back to the Glenmary priests and brothers that led the parish in its first couple of decades. While the group’s number has gone up and down over the years, recently the Catholic community at the college has had a strong presence in the church and local community.
Meeting on Wednesday nights, the students gather in the parish’s old social hall in a casual, coffee-style environment to pray, worship and discuss issues relevant to young Catholics. The students also make two retreats each year—one in the spring and one in the fall—and usually join students from other colleges like Emory University, Atlanta, and Young Harris College, Young Harris. Students also are able to attend Mass on campus once a week.
Father Frederick feels it is an important ministry to keep these young students close to their faith or at least offer the opportunity for them to explore facets of the faith they may have forgotten or may be confused about.
“There is a lot of good stuff happening with this,” said Father Frederick.
Today, the St. Luke community is also known for branching out spiritually beyond the walls of its community. Father Frederick said there is a strong ecumenical connection between St. Luke’s and the other faith groups in the area, and during certain times of the year the groups come together to highlight their similarities and work on how they can better minister to each other and their local community.
Father Frederick said leaders of denominations that are part of the Dahlonega/Lumpkin County Ministerial Association meet on a monthly basis to discuss different issues and problems in the area and how they can address them as one community.
During Advent each year the various faith communities come together at one of the local churches for weekly ecumenical services with Scripture readings and the singing of hymns. There is also prayer and preaching and afterwards all the participants share time together at a potluck dinner. Father Frederick has recognized the value in these meetings and is preparing for this year’s celebration to be held at St. Luke’s.
However, this fall the focus was all on the golden anniversary of the parish in Dahlonega. The Catholic community has grown significantly since its early days and the church now ministers to nearly 400 families in the area with four weekend Masses including one in Spanish.
During the second weekend in October the community officially celebrated the anniversary with a parish picnic, a wine-tasting fundraiser and an anniversary Mass. It was a time to reflect on the past but also to look forward to the bright future in store.
“This is our time to make a difference and whether we’ve got a year left in these pews or on these streets or a hundred years, don’t waste it,” said Father Frederick at the Mass as he encouraged the parishioners to get involved. “Make a contribution, plant a seed, share your gifts, encourage a child, visit the sick, participate in outreach, worship and adore, love and persevere in faith.”
“Thank God for the blessings of these past 50 years,” he said. “Thank God for the parishioners who have toiled and made the parish so special.”