By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published December 6, 2012
The pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes describes it as “an intentional parish,” a place where people from over 160 zip codes in and around Atlanta choose to belong, along with those from the neighborhood of the Old Fourth Ward.
The parish is now about 80 percent African-American, 18 percent white and 2 percent Asian, Dominican Father Jeffery Ott said.
In interviews, some of those who have joined the parish in the last decade said the vital quality of the liturgy and choir music drew them into the community at first.
Tom Sherrill, a certified financial planner, and his wife, Dianne, joined the parish in 2003.
Native Atlantans who live in the Northlake area, they visited one Sunday after friends commented on the “worship experience and community at Lourdes.”
“We wanted to see for ourselves,” he said.
“The music is the first thing that hits you. I still remember the first song I heard the choir sing—‘At the Table.’ Then, as now, we sang the liturgy as a congregation,” he said.
“As we continued to attend, we began to recognize and appreciate other aspects of the Lourdes experience,” he added. “The feeling of community and the friendliness were especially noteworthy. The homilies were, and are, informative and inspirational. Finally, as we have gotten involved in ministries at Lourdes—St. Vincent de Paul, Centennial Committee, Bible study, RCIA—we have had experiences and friendships which nourish us.”
Living in Austin, Texas, Louis Hubbard and his wife heard about Our Lady of Lourdes when their daughter, Yvette, attended Spelman College in Atlanta and went to Mass at Lourdes, where Dr. Kevin Johnson, Spelman faculty member and Glee Club director, is the minister of music.
“She would always call us in Texas and share her experience and the excitement of attending Mass. She talked about the service and the parishioners and the awesome choir,” Hubbard said.
When people from his Austin parish of Holy Cross visited family in Atlanta, they went to Lourdes. Also, the history of the parish, its connection with Martin Luther King Jr. and nearness to the King Center was well known in the community, he said.
“Lourdes has a great reputation in Austin, Texas,” he said.
When he and his wife relocated to Atlanta in 2009, they joined Our Lady of Lourdes Church.
“When we visited Lourdes, we also felt the warmth, caring and welcoming spirit,” he said.
Geraldine Jackson-White, a native of New Orleans who lived along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, came to Atlanta eight years ago. Living in College Park, she and her husband are among those who come to Our Lady of Lourdes from another part of metro Atlanta.
“We were immediately attracted to Lourdes because of its Spirit-filled worship service, the warmth and welcome received from old members, and the opportunity to practice our Catholic values of social justice and faith. Also, Lourdes reminded us of the Catholic mission churches we grew up in in Mississippi and Louisiana. We felt at home on the first visit,” she said.
Sherrill, Hubbard and Jackson-White were all part of the Centennial Committee at Our Lady of Lourdes, which worked for the last several years to plumb the history of the parish and to find a way to celebrate 100 years that would also be meaningful for the future of the church.
At one meeting, Father Ott said, “we sat around trying to get a sense of this moment and capture that in words.” They came up with “A Century of Witness—A Future of Commitment” as the theme.
“It was just—that’s it!” he recalled.
“It was a spiritual moment that captures it for us. Our ancestors not only witnessed the Gospel, but they witnessed huge cultural, political change over the century,” he said.
Like the gospel song “Making It Over,” the founders of the parish and the generations that followed them were “able to tell the story” not just of surviving hard times, but of how they lived through those times and kept their faith “together and strong,” the pastor said.
Hubbard, the first person in his family to graduate from college and a lifelong educator, said working as a co-chair of the Centennial Committee was “great for my spirituality and connection to the Catholic faith.”
Standing on the shoulders of the pioneer members and founders “has been one of the highlights of my Catholic experience,” he said.
“I am very thankful to the many men and woman who had the faith, determination, vision and commitment to establish a Catholic church for African-Americans in Atlanta in 1912. Their dedication to a dream is what has propelled Our Lady of Lourdes for 100 years,” Hubbard said. “May Lourdes celebrate and witness another 100 years.”
Jackson-White, who holds a doctorate in adult education, chaired the history committee. Working on the project “has been a humbling and personally gratifying experience,” she said.
“Our founders were brave and courageous Catholic Christians who believed in social justice and that theme has continued in this church community to this day. The early members of this church were also brave Christians to hold onto their faith that this church would survive,” she said.
Sherrill said doing their research they “learned more about the difficulties in Lourdes even getting underway.”
“For discriminatory reasons, the first location (for Our Lady of Lourdes Church and School) was blocked. However, thanks to the courageous involvement of Mr. J.J. Spalding, Lourdes was able to secure its current location. Of course, we also learned more about the invaluable role of Mother (now St.) Katharine Drexel in making the building of the church possible,” he said.
“We have developed a real respect and admiration for the commitment of the founding members of Lourdes, as well as Father (Ignatius) Lissner, their first pastor,” Sherrill said.
Asked to describe what the “heart” of Lourdes is for him, Sherrill said, “There is a beautiful irony at the heart of Lourdes. This parish began in 1912 so that African-Americans could have a Catholic Church where they could worship without any vestiges of segregation. Now, in 2012, while remaining very true to its roots, Lourdes has become a beacon for many throughout Atlanta. Here, around the corner from Dr. King’s boyhood home, across the street from where Dr. and Mrs. King are entombed, our parish is a demonstration of what Dr. King called ‘the table of brotherhood’—literally the Eucharistic table of brotherhood. As we sing from time to time, ‘There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.’”