By NICHOLE GOLDEN, firstname.lastname@example.org | Published August 7, 2014
ATLANTA—Holy Spirit Church commemorated its 50th anniversary with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory at the beginning of 2014, with 50 Wednesday evenings of Eucharistic adoration and a summertime parish picnic complete with a mortgage burning.
“Our game plan for the 50th year was to make it a yearlong celebration where this year would be focused on the whole idea of spiritual renewal, spring-boarding in the late fall and the early part of next year with a major focus on the New Evangelization,” said Msgr. Edward J. Dillon, pastor.
A retreat of renewal for young adults and teens will be held this fall and another for adult parishioners in the winter.
Holy Spirit, situated at Northside Drive and Mt. Paran Road, has a registered membership of 2,100 households. In addition, its Centro Católico del Espíritu Santo mission in Sandy Springs serves more than 600 Hispanic families.
“The growth is obviously the biggest single thing,” said Msgr. Dillon of the changes of the last five decades.
In May 1964, some 250 families, led by Father John McDonough of the Cathedral of Christ the King, formed Holy Spirit. “It was carved off the cathedral parish,” explained Msgr. Dillon.
The families first celebrated Mass at Pace Academy and then the school that is now Sutton Middle School. The first church was built in 1967 and was an octagonal-shaped multipurpose building with a dome ceiling.
“The center of it was a basketball court,” said the pastor.
He said it was often referred to as the “St. Coca-Cola” church due to the scoreboard behind the altar that advertised Atlanta’s most famous drink.
John Gillin, a Holy Spirit parishioner for more than 45 years, recalls the days of Mass with metal folding chairs in the original building.
“We had to set up the chairs. Our little sons would help,” said Gillin, whose family moved to Atlanta from New York in 1968.
The chair movers, then 7 and 8, are now 52 and 53.
As a member of the parish’s finance committee off and on for 30 years, Gillin called the growth “a little shocking” and at one point land previously sold was purchased back to keep up with growth.
Gillin calls the pastor a “builder priest.” Msgr. Dillon has served the church since 1987.
“The biggest impetus for what it is today is Msgr. Dillon,” said Gillin.
Gillin’s wife, Marty, volunteers in ministries, and their daughter, Anne Weingartz, works for the Holy Spirit Preparatory School’s preschool.
The family has “lived and loved” life in the parish, said Gillin.
‘A mighty good parish’
As the church outgrew the first building, plans were undertaken for the construction of a separate church and education building, completed in March 1977. The project was guided by then-pastor Father Peter Ludden. A parish hall was added later.
A long-range planning study in 1988 defined development of new physical facilities as a priority to meet projected growth. The current church was dedicated in July 1995. The parish campus is more than 30 acres, with the adjoining Holy Spirit Preparatory School and Holy Spirit College located on 14 acres. The schools are independent entities from the parish but work “hand-in-glove,” said Msgr. Dillon.
The college, formed in 2005, offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees. The prep school is for students in pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade.
Linda and Tom Wessels joined Holy Spirit in 1984 after a move to Atlanta.
“We actually took our sons to three different churches. They chose Holy Spirit,” said Linda Wessels.
Tom is a member of the Knights of Columbus, and Linda is very active at the church and in the Buckhead Christian Ministry for which the parish helps to supply volunteers.
Wessels works shifts with volunteers from several partner churches at the ministry’s THRIFTique. The thrift boutique provides free clothing for those in need, including the newly hired needing outfits for work. The store provides low-cost items, including household goods, to the public.
“You wouldn’t think there would be people who need help in Buckhead,” said Wessels.
BCM helps many families and individuals in crisis to achieve long-term stability through various programs.
The entire month of June, Holy Spirit parishioners conducted a canned food drive for BCM’s food pantry.
Longtime parishioner Felix De Golian said regular collections help not only the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, but the church itself to have the “resources to be able to reach out” to the poor.
De Golian attends Mass with his wife, Mallory, and mother, Helen, who is a founding member of Holy Spirit.
“It’s family … a mighty good parish,” said De Golian. He has served as a lector, an usher and member of the parish council as well as a Sunday school teacher for 10 years.
“You get to know one another,” said De Golian, about volunteering.
More than 64 percent of registered adult members are engaged in one or more of Holy Spirit’s ministries. And there is no shortage of ministries or activities from which to choose—more than 100.
Community outreach programs include an AIDS ministry, a Thailand mission, knotted rosaries for the military, and food delivery. A cancer survivors and caregivers support group meets regularly as does Spirited Older Seniors and a prayer shawl group. Prayer ministries include “Fideles” for laymen and the 31 Club praying for religious vocations.
“It’s a very active parish,” said Msgr. Dillon.
Newcomers have dinner at the rectory
Director of Volunteers Kate Allen meets with every new person registering with the parish.
“She will sit down with them, take them on a tour of the facilities, talk with them for an hour or more about all the things going on at the parish and tries to identify their interests,” said Msgr. Dillon about Allen’s role.
New members are invited to the rectory for dinner with the clergy.
“That makes them feel connected to the parish,” said Msgr. Dillon. “It’s a very simple dinner. It’s basically spaghetti and meat sauce. They’re obviously not coming for gourmet food.”
Before each Mass at Holy Spirit, the deacons and priests greet parishioners and visitors at the front so they feel welcome and comfortable.
“That creates an atmosphere in the parish that encourages people to get involved,” the pastor said.
Holy Spirit’s parochial vicars are Father Nicholas Azar and Father Greg Goolsby. Deacons Stephen Demko, Bill McCarthy and Allen Underwood serve the parish. Father John Fallon, prison chaplain, is a priest-in-residence and assists on Sundays. Deacon Trini Merlo, assigned to St. Joseph Church in Marietta, also lends a hand on Sundays at the Centro Católico mission on Northwood Drive in Sandy Springs.
At Centro Católico, Hispanic families attend Mass, celebrate the sacraments of baptism and marriage, have Bible studies and participate in religious education. Other sacraments, including first Communion and confirmation, are held at Holy Spirit. The staff members of the mission have been instrumental in facilitating educational and social services to alleviate poverty and improve the education and development of the community.
“We work closely with St. Vincent de Paul,” said Martha Manrique, mission volunteer coordinator.
Manrique said other offerings include parenting programs, English as a second language classes, the Solidarity School for preschoolers, summer camp for children and mobile health visits from Saint Joseph’s Mercy Care services.
More than half of the families at Centro Católico do not have vehicles, and for joint celebrations, including the recent parish picnic, the Knights of Columbus operate shuttles so all can attend the time of fellowship.
Centro Católico families brought cuisine from Mexico, Central and South America for everyone to enjoy at the June 8 picnic.
The celebration of the two communities included activities for children and a mortgage burning for Holy Spirit’s most recent capital campaign debt for the addition of a chapel seating 200, a new McDonough Hall, expansion of the education center, and a basement, all completed in 2010.
Not only have the buildings changed and grown, but the demographics of parishioners have shifted, too. In the late 1980s, the average age of parishioners was in the upper 50s, and that is now in the lower 40s, translating into fewer empty nesters and more families.
More than 600 children are enrolled in the Sunday school program and another 600 in the middle and high school programs. There were just 200 children in total registered for education programs in 1987.
Despite the growth, families obviously feel connected to the clergy and one another.
Felix De Golian said he views Msgr. Dillon as a “mentor to a lot of young priests.”
De Golian also learns much during his pastor’s homilies. “He takes you into the picture,” he said.
Fellow parishioner John Gillin has a simple but heartfelt description of Holy Spirit.
“It’s just a great parish,” he said.