By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published August 15, 2013
MARIETTA—While the landscape has changed completely, some of the people who filled the church were remarkably the same. Couples who started Holy Family Church greeted each other at the 40th anniversary Mass July 10 after a standing-room-only liturgy celebrated by Bishop Luis R. Zarama.
“This was farmland when the church was built. There was a farm on Powers Ferry Road. There were no houses across the street,” said John Fitzpatrick, as hundreds of people spilled out of the church and headed for a reception in the parish hall. Fitzpatrick and his wife, Barbara, and their three children joined the parish in 1973.
Mary Jane and Bob Slone came in 1972 from Long Island, N.Y., when her husband received a job transfer. Employers like IBM and General Electric sent staff to Atlanta from the Northeast, leading to an influx of Catholics in places like Cobb County. It was quite an adjustment for those from heavily Catholic areas.
The Slones’ three children received the sacrament of confirmation on center court in Wheeler High School’s gym, Mary Jane Slone said.
As for the parish just being established in 1973 on Lower Roswell Road in undeveloped east Cobb County, “We had no building. We had nothing,” she said emphatically. “There was nothing here.”
With the founding pastor, Father John Mulroy, about 60 people initially gathered for Mass at an Episcopal church. As Holy Family grew, the congregation moved to a middle school and then the high school, Slone said. Religious education classes were held at a Cobb middle school.
At the time, St. Joseph in Marietta was the closest parish. That church, along with St. Thomas the Apostle in Smyrna and St. Jude in Sandy Springs, gave money so Holy Family could get started, according to parish history.
Continuing the growth, Holy Family offshoots later were St. Ann and Transfiguration churches in Marietta and St. Catherine of Siena in Kennesaw, which started as parish missions, Slone and Fitzpatrick noted.
The area is so transformed that the most famous chicken now is the Marietta landmark. Catholics who were a small minority are a strong presence today.
And unlike some of metro Atlanta, many people who moved into these lovely neighborhoods 40 years ago have stayed where they started, Slone said.
“Our neighborhood is 50 percent original people,” she said. “We are in the home we moved into when we came down” from Long Island.
In researching parish history, current pastor Father Darragh Griffith said he came across two observations from the late Father Mulroy that struck him. One was that the church, which was built on a 16-acre site, was intentionally designed to put the focus not on the architecture but on the people.
In about 1980, Father Mulroy wrote about the building of Holy Family Church. He said that “one day our architect asked me to sit down in our pasture land surrounded by grazing horses. He pointed to an open area and said: ‘Father, that’s where the Church should be, and if I’m real successful I’m going to make the building disappear so that everyone will know that the real Church is the people of God.’”
Father Mulroy also wrote that although the parish couldn’t afford stained glass windows, they had something superior in the floor-to-ceiling view of nature through the wall of glass behind the altar.
“We are calling upon the greatest artist of all to provide us with the scenes of our stained glass. Who is He? Our Heavenly Father,” Father Mulroy wrote.
“Our large church window is a vista into God’s creation outside. The richness of the Eucharist encompasses everything, and it’s a privilege to celebrate this gift including God’s people and nature,” Father Griffith said.
A Eucharistic adoration chapel was dedicated in the building six years ago and “adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has truly brought great blessings to our parish as only Jesus can,” he said.
Set far back from Lower Roswell Road, the low-rise building is unobtrusively placed in the landscape, and as the first pastor hoped, draws attention not to the structure but to the people within and the seasons outside.
With about 1,400 families it’s not just comprised of longtime parishioners, but also of newcomers, Father Griffith said. About 100 registered families are Spanish speaking and 3 p.m. Sunday Mass is in Spanish; about 100 more families speak Portuguese, with Mass celebrated Saturday and Tuesday evenings at 8 p.m. in that language. A Portuguese-speaking priest, Father Joao Gualberto, is shared with St. Jude Church. Father Kizito Okeke is also a parochial vicar there.
“Holy Family was the first parish in Cobb County to host Masses in Spanish for the Hispanic community,” Father Griffith said. “Also more recently we began a Mass in Portuguese for the Brazilian community. We also have people from African and Asian cultures.”
Another distinguishing characteristic of the parish, Father Griffith said, is that the people “have helped nurture and form many priests through their love.”
When the Serra Club was first started in the Atlanta Archdiocese, with its mission to link lay people with priests and archdiocesan seminarians in a practical, friendly and supportive way, many initial members came from Holy Family Church. Couples and families were a home away from home for those in the seminary or priests from overseas. Priests who have deep ties to the parish include Father Neil Herlihy, who was a parishioner there before he became a priest, Msgr. Dan Stack, formerly a parochial vicar, Msgr. Ed Thein, a former pastor and past vocations director, and Msgr. Paul Fogarty, a former pastor.
Despite the relatively small size of the Catholic population in North Georgia in the 1980s, longtime parishioner Mary Costa recalled some of the vitality of the parish’s early years. She wrote that Holy Family had notably strong music ministries, an annual week of renewal led by an evangelization committee, an active liturgy committee, and at one time even a clown ministry. The Holy Family women’s group has been led over the year by a range of women who also went on to serve the Atlanta Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, including parishioner Joan Lucas.
Lucas remembered the parish hosting an open house in the early 1970s so that congregations nearby who were unfamiliar with Catholicism could visit and have their questions answered. Today the parish is actively engaged in outreach with its neighbors, including Johnson Ferry Baptist Church.
This fall Holy Family parishioners will be building two Habitat for Humanity houses.
Father Griffith also said that Life Teen is an important part of the parish today and was initiated there by Father Thein in 1996. He enjoys meeting with teens on Wednesday nights for pizza and prayer as they reflect on the readings for the coming Sunday and spend time with their peers. The teen Mass is celebrated on Sunday evening, along with a Life Teen program and a separate program for younger teens.
“Our young people have always been an integral part of the parish. Indeed they are both the future and now of the Church,” he said.
He came to the parish first as a parochial vicar and then became its pastor.
“The people of Holy Family are for me the most special thing about our parish,” Father Griffith said. “As I began my pastorate at Holy Family, I was advised above all else to just love the people. I continue to work on this journey of love.”