By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 10, 2011
Friends, current and former parishioners, and neighbors from other faith communities came together Oct. 23 to recognize the ministry that St. Peter Church has provided to the city of LaGrange and Troup County for 75 years.
Hundreds filled the sunlit church to capacity, even standing, as Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Father Theodore Book, pastor, concelebrated a Mass honoring the parish’s decades of service and ministry.
“You have built a wonderful, not to mention beautiful, parish campus to serve the needs of this growing community. You have witnessed the development of many catechetical programs that have strengthened the faith of the people who now call, and those who have called, St. Peter’s their church home,” said Archbishop Gregory during the homily at the anniversary Mass.
“But above all, you have striven to live the faith of the Church with joy and enthusiasm for the past 75 years,” the archbishop added.
According to a history of the parish, St. Peter Church had humble beginnings in the early 20th century in west Georgia, where a few Catholic families hosted occasional Masses whenever a priest could get to the area.
From 1910 until 1916, Masses were offered in various homes in LaGrange every four to six weeks or so. Father Henry Clark, later Msgr. Clark, was one of the most frequent visiting priests, the history says.
In the long periods in between, Catholics had to travel to Atlanta, Columbus, Griffin or other neighboring cities to receive the sacraments. Catholicism was kept alive by the practice of religion in the daily home life of the faithful. Parents were primarily responsible for the religious instruction of their children, assisted by the occasional visits of a priest or a nun.
In the 1930s, Father James King was the pastor of St. Joseph Church in Athens and was responsible for the missions, including LaGrange. Father King asked for help for his mission projects from the Extension Fund of the Catholic publication, The Sign Magazine. He was granted $10,000, given by an anonymous donor to build a church in LaGrange. The donor asked that the church be named St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
In 1935, after consulting with parishioners and looking at several downtown sites, the Church Street property where St. Peter’s first church was constructed was purchased for $875.
The building of St. Peter’s, the first Catholic church in the history of LaGrange and Troup County, was completed in April 1936. Father Michael McInerney was the architect and an itinerant laborer of European extraction was the builder, according to the parish history. It was a brick and mortar structure and had a seating capacity of 100. The dedication was on April 26, 1936.
“The history of St. Peter’s Church is but a small piece of the two-thousand-year history of the Catholic Church, but it is a beautiful piece, one that is worthy of being remembered and re-told,” wrote Father Book in a letter to parishioners.
Various priests and pastors, including a stint of Redemptorist priests during World War II, passed through the parish, which continued to grow and expand throughout the century. Groundbreaking on the current building along LaFayette Parkway began in 1987, with completion and dedication of the new church taking place in July 1988.
From its humble beginnings with a dozen faithful families hosting Masses in their homes, St. Peter’s Parish now ministers to nearly 1,200 people.
“St. Peter’s Catholic Church is one of the oldest parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” wrote Father Book. “From its beginning as a parish in 1936 up until today St. Peter’s has helped to share the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the people of West Georgia.”
“In that time, St. Peter’s has grown from a dozen families to almost 470, with nearly 1,200 individual members,” he continued. “Over the past 75 years, countless individuals have been reborn at St. Peter’s through the Sacrament of Baptism, nourished with the Eucharist, strengthened with Confirmation. Untold sins have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and individuals prepared for eternal life through the Anointing of the Sick.”
But as Archbishop Gregory said in his homily, the church has been more than a place for the faithful to receive the sacraments. It has also been a light of love for the surrounding community.
“For 75 years, St. Peter’s Catholic Parish has been a place where people are welcomed and loved and accepted. It is a neighborly parish and one that tries to live the greatest commandment, with all of the challenges that come with that commandment,” the archbishop said.
Currently the parish offers a wide range of opportunities for fellowship and ministry, including adult, youth and Spanish choirs, Bible studies, Eucharistic adoration, hospital volunteer opportunities, the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary, Meals on Wheels and the St. Vincent de Paul Society, among others.
At the end of the anniversary Mass, the community recognized its new parishioners by reading their names and welcoming them with applause.
The hundreds of attendees remained after the Mass for a lively celebration that included live music, food and games. Smiling children enjoyed the fresh cotton candy as the adults waited patiently for a hamburger or hot dog right off the grill.
It was a day to remember their past but also to look toward the future. The rich history of the LaGrange church reminded parishioners of their roots and in many ways inspired them to adopt the same attitude of perseverance and faith as they hope to move forward another 75 years.
“The future of St. Peter’s Catholic Church remains to be written,” said Father Book. “It is my prayer that the bold and heroic work of the men and women who brought the Catholic faith to West Georgia, and who have nourished it with their prayers and sacrifices, may inspire others to continue the good work that they have begun.”
For more information on St. Peter’s Church or for a detailed history of the parish, visit www.stpeterslagrange.net.