By STEPHEN O'KANE, Staff Writer | Published November 8, 2012
As part of its recognition of 100 years as a parish in Atlanta, Our Lady of Lourdes has planned a series of events in November to honor the significant milestone.
- Nov. 14, 2012-Feb. 24, 2013: Our Lady of Lourdes Exhibit at Auburn Avenue Research Library
- Thursday, Nov. 15, 7 p.m.: Interfaith Service at Our Lady of Lourdes, 25 Boulevard, NE, Atlanta
- Saturday, Nov. 17 & Sunday, Nov. 18: Masses of Thanksgiving honoring past priests and sisters.
- The Nov. 18 Mass at noon will be celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church was founded in 1911 by Father Ignatius Lissner of the Society of African Missions as a mission for African-American Catholics, who were not being welcomed at Catholic churches.
During a visit to Atlanta, “Father Lissner observed that the oppression of segregated Atlanta had left the Black population without a welcoming Catholic institution,” a history of Lourdes says, and he received permission from Savannah Bishop Benjamin J. Keiley to establish the mission. It became, in the words of Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, the Mother Church of the archdiocese’s African-American Catholics.
At that time, the priest’s search for a site in the Highlands area of Atlanta to build the mission was met with both anti-black and anti-Catholic sentiment. However, with the help of J.J. Spalding, a parishioner of nearby Sacred Heart Church, Father Lissner succeeded in purchasing the site on Boulevard in March 1912.
By November 1912, a building was completed, blessed and dedicated. Father Lissner obtained financing from Mother Katharine Drexel, a wealthy Philadelphia heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order established to serve black and Indian people. Black Catholics from throughout North Georgia traveled to worship at the mission church, which has since become an icon for the early black Catholic community in Georgia.
St. Katharine Drexel, who was canonized in 2000, is considered a co-founder of Lourdes with Father Lissner, a pioneer in the planting of churches who would continue to strengthen the early community in the face of threats and roadblocks.
Part of the history of Atlanta and the history of the Catholic Church in Atlanta, Lourdes survived the Great Fire of 1917 in the Old Fourth Ward. In the 1960s, Lourdes was on the doorstep of the Civil Rights movement.
Staffed by the Society of African Missions for many decades, it then became a parish served by archdiocesan priests. Now the parish is under the care of the Dominican order, led by pastor Father Jeffery Ott, OP.
At its founding, the Lourdes complex consisted of the church on the first floor, classrooms on the second and a parish hall on the third floor. The mission was initially meant to be a memorial to the late Archbishop Patrick Ryan of Philadelphia and was called Our Lady of Lourdes in memory of the day on which he died.
Throughout its decades of presence in Atlanta, Our Lady of Lourdes has become woven into the surrounding neighborhood and community through its various outreach programs and services. An exhibit featuring historical items and information and highlighting this aspect of the parish will open at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on Nov. 14 and run through Feb. 24, 2013.
“The exhibit will be a visual representation of the Our Lady of Lourdes Church and School,” said Dr. Geraldine Jackson-White, a member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Centennial Committee. “There will be artifacts that represent Lourdes specifically. It’s meant to inform and educate.”
The exhibit, which was made possible by a grant from the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, will feature items from the last 100 years, from first Communion veils, prayer books and chalices to school uniforms, pictures and pre-Vatican II Communion patens. Banners with information on both Lourdes and Catholicism will also be a part of the display. The focus of the exhibit will be on Our Lady of Lourdes, the African-American Catholic experience in Georgia, and Catholicism in general, said Jackson-White.
“We are hoping that Catholic schools will bring students to learn,” she said, adding that the exhibit was intentionally made to be portable so that any interested schools could use the display for educational purposes in the future.
Also planned in celebration of the 100-year-old parish is an interfaith service recognizing the collaborative service efforts of Our Lady of Lourdes and other local groups. Among these efforts is Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment (ABLE), a multicultural interfaith coalition that advocates for empowerment of ordinary people at the grassroots level, the Lourdes lunch program for the hungry, its Simon’s Call AIDS ministry, Haiti ministry, St. Vincent de Paul ministry, among others.
In addition, every year volunteers from Our Lady of Lourdes join volunteers from other churches to build a Habitat for Humanity home for a deserving family. The Knights and Ladies of Peter Claver and the Junior Knights and Junior Daughters all began in the last quarter century.
The interfaith service will feature speakers from various faith traditions who have worked with or been impacted by Our Lady of Lourdes. Dance and vocal performances will also be a part of the interfaith event.
Patrice Barton Smith, a parishioner since 2003, serves as the co-chair of the centennial committee and has enjoyed working with parishioners and neighbors to help put together the various celebrations.
“It has been a huge honor to play this role,” she said, adding how much the parish has meant to her and the surrounding community. “It means a lot to honor the community that has been so important here.”
Smith also said a series of Masses in recognition of all former priests and sisters that served at Our Lady of Lourdes has been scheduled for the weekend of Nov. 17-18. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will celebrate the noon Mass on Sunday, Nov. 18. All former priests and sisters have been invited to attend the weekend Masses.
Our Lady of Lourdes started with 15 members. Father Lissner nominated Father Michael Scherrer as the first pastor. Two laywomen, Bessie Rucker and Leulla Holmes, were recruited as the first two teachers at the parish school; they were soon joined by Bessie Landrum and Lucile Rucker. All of the lay teachers were African-American. The school opened in October 1912 with 50 students, and by the end of the school year had 35 pupils in kindergarten, 40 in first grade, and 30 each in second and third. Tuition during the early years was 10 cents a month for families who could pay. The families who could not pay were not turned away.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament staffed Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School until 1974. The school closed in 2001, when the Archdiocese of Atlanta could no longer provide funding. It has become the Katharine Drexel Community Center, which includes church offices, Sunday school classrooms, a choir rehearsal hall, and the Drexel Institute for the Arts.
In early 2008, to meet the needs of the growing church, Our Lady of Lourdes introduced a Capital Stewardship Campaign in order to purchase the only adjacent land to the existing property. Over 600 households responded with pledges and donations at the campaign kick-off on Easter Sunday. On June 11, 2008, the Atlanta Urban Design Commission approved the Lourdes’ conceptual master plan/site plan for the construction of a new sanctuary on the property.
Our Lady of Lourdes is located in the midst of what is now known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Landmark District.