By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 24, 2012
Bill Maddox carried the cross down the aisle of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, as his mind recalled names of people and families who once filled the wooden pews. Some are buried in the nearby parish cemetery, where flowers decorate metal grave markers; others have moved away.
“I couldn’t help thinking about my folks, my parents, and all the other people that have passed. You just had a feeling they were in that service,” he said. “It was truly an honor. I’m thinking, where do 50 years go?”
Maddox and Jim Shadrix were teenagers serving at the altar when the church was dedicated in 1962 in Carroll County. The two men stood together again when the community, now larger and with a sizable Hispanic Catholic community, marked the church’s 50th anniversary.
Standing on the edge of the church sanctuary, Shadrix found himself reliving memories. A family man with two grown children, he was dressed in a white alb, standing where he stood when life was in front of him.
Said Shadrix, “I was thinking about all the progress that has been made. I was married in the church, my kids were baptized in the church. My son served, just like I did.”
On March 26, the community gathered with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to mark its 50th jubilee.
This granite and redwood church seats a little more than 400 people. It is the center of Catholic life for two west Georgia counties, Carroll and Haralson.
Catholics have never had sizable numbers here, although their history in the area dates back more than a century. Hungarians from the Northeast are credited with bringing the faith when they came here in an ill-fated effort to raise grape vines for wine. Prohibition squashed the effort and most left the region.
The senior altar servers’ families don’t go back that far. Maddox’s father was a South Georgia Baptist who married a Polish Catholic girl from Philadelphia, where they were married in a church rectory as was the custom then. Shadrix traces his Catholic roots to grandparents from Czechoslovakia who immigrated to this country around the turn of the century and landed in Georgia following their dream to own a farm.
Today, four out of 100 residents in Carroll County are Catholic. The Association of Religion Data Archives counts 4,462 Catholics in the community, some 21,000 fewer churchgoers than the most common faith tradition, Southern Baptist.
Today, it is Latinos from Central and South America increasingly filling the pews. The families with young children bring vitality to the parish. The parish is growing, with 130 to 140 baptisms a year and about 10 to 12 weddings.
“In the English group, I’m young,” said the pastor, Father Rafael Carballo. “In the Spanish group, I’m old.”
Father Carballo, who has been assigned here since 2009, said he’s seen “very faithful people” in his community.
“People have driven 20 to 30 minutes to come to church. That’s 20 to 30 minutes highway driving,” he said.
The parish sits on close to 50 acres, but most of it remains forested.
“My neighbors are the cows. My neighborhood is nature,” he said.
A native of Puerto Rico, he was born in 1962, the same year the church was dedicated.
With more Spanish speakers, Father Carballo increased the number of Spanish Masses to handle the overflow of people.
The parish organizes many bilingual liturgical events, in addition to community events. On May 6, it hosted a Family Day, which was a great success, as people mingled, ate, and played soccer, he said.
The parish remains the hub of Catholic life. There are five weekend Masses, two Spanish, three English. Most activity keeps the place busy on the weekend, but fairly quiet during the week.
The parish, some 50 miles west of Atlanta, is vital as there are no Catholic schools or hospitals, or other Catholic institutions.
That makes Norma Rothschadl work hard to keep young people and adults connected to each other and the wider Catholic community. Her office in the Carroll Center parish hall is decorated with small signs, like “God is only a prayer away” and “Real Men Pray.” Behind her desk, where she works on a laptop, is a collage of photos of the youth group.
The parish is vital since it is the only place for Catholics to see the faith lived, she said. “They have to make a more conscious effort to be involved,” traveling for long distances, she said.
The parish brings people to major events in archdiocese, from the Eucharistic Congress to the Christian Leadership Institute, to show everyone they are part of a wider church, not simply a country church.
“It’s important for us to stay connected,” she said. And the parish goal for young people is to build “a good Catholic identity even though they don’t go to a Catholic school,” she said.
As a small faith community, some said Catholics face curiosity and some misconceptions.
Maddox’s faith wasn’t an issue as a young person. He chuckled telling a story about Friday high school band trips when the bus stopped at roadside diners for “85 hamburgers and two fish sandwiches.”
“To this day, I hate fish sticks,” said Maddox, who lives about 10 minutes from the church.
Alexis Stoddard graduated from Carrollton High School, where some two dozen people were Catholic in the school. She is a student at nearby University of West Georgia studying nursing.
“I am so outspoken in my faith because it is just that, my faith. It is something I am proud of and it is a part of my daily life. I speak out for it because it is something I hold near and dear to my heart. It’s what holds me together,” Stoddard said in an email.
Stoddard, 18, gave a witness talk at a Baptist revival in town, the only Catholic to do so.
“I was amongst friends and strangers. Some of the faces when I explained I was Catholic were what I expected because there are so many misconceptions: we are cannibals, we worship saints or Mary, all of which I have been asked about before,” she said.
She told the crowd that God’s love always surrounds her despite her imperfections and sins “through the beauty of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.”
Applause greeted her talk. But it was later she realized the importance of her talk.
“The next day I got a Facebook message from a girl that said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated you giving your testimony last night, and I think it really helped some people,’” said Stoddard, who attends the parish with her parents, Andrea and Derek Stoddard, and also teaches the first grade Sunday school class and is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
“Our Lady of Perpetual Help is an amazing parish with a warm and loving environment. Father Rafael has been such a blessing to our little parish and continues to do great things,” she said.
The church members in the 1950s, when the mission was established, could almost be counted on two hands, numbering about a dozen families. Today, the church has some 1,200 families. It became a parish in 1965.
Out of the corps of altar servers from those early years, Shadrix and Maddox are the only remaining active at the parish, where they continue to serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, members of the Knights of Columbus.
With so few people, “it was expected of us” in the 1950s to be altar servers, to say aloud the Latin prayer responses, to move the book from one side of the altar to another, to hold small patens underneath the chins of people receiving Communion, said Shadrix, 65, who drives a commuter van to his work in Atlanta.
“I still remember some of the Latin prayers. You never forgot them.”