By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published October 2, 2014
LITHONIA—No longer a baby or even a teenager, Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia has arrived at adulthood.
In celebration of the parish’s 30th anniversary, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory concelebrated Mass on Sept. 21 with the current pastor, Father JohnPaul Ezeonyido, and several former pastors.
The priests, deacons and altar servers processed into the church to the exuberant hymn, “What a Mighty God We Serve.” More than a dozen of the church’s founders, who have since moved, returned to mark the occasion. Prayers and readings were offered in several different languages, reflecting the church’s multicultural nature.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory commented on the quick passage of 30 years for the community of faith, comparing it to personal human categories.
“You have endured infancy, adolescence, and now you are in your prime,” said the archbishop. “Yes, in 30 years, you have grown up quite a bit, and for that you must praise almighty God for providing the grace and strength to enter this new moment of community life.”
Parishioner Mireya Cadogan coordinated the anniversary year events. She first came to Christ Our Hope in 1998, after moving from Columbus. Parishioners have celebrated the 30th year with an opening ceremony, a concert, a Lenten prayer breakfast, and a July picnic.
Cadogan said it’s the parish’s diversity that makes it special with more than 50 nations represented among its 450 families. “Many Voices and One Spirit” was the anniversary theme.
What made the anniversary year even better was the response of the people in preparing for events. “Everyone pitched in,” said Cadogan.
The church seats almost 400 and was packed to capacity to welcome its former pastors and the archbishop. “It’s like exhilarating. It just tops it off,” said Cadogan about Archbishop Gregory’s visit.
Before leaving the church to bless a new memorial garden, the archbishop posed for a photograph with the children’s choir.
He then offered a final encouragement to the grown-ups.
“Remember when you were 30 years old?” Archbishop Gregory asked. “You could do anything.”
Founders are not forgotten
Father Ezeonyido offered his gratitude for the immense contributions of those who were part of Christ Our Hope’s history, including former pastors. Founding pastor Father John Kieran opened the basement of his residence for the parish’s initial gatherings in 1984.
Other former pastors were the late Father Austin Fogarty, Father Paul Flood, Father Jack Durkin and Father Guyma Noel. Father Noel and Father Kieran were concelebrants of the anniversary Mass.
“We have come this far by faith,” Father Ezeonyido told the community. “I can feel God’s love for you, and also I can feel your love for God and one another.”
Father Ezeonyido encouraged all to think of what they could do for Christ Our Hope and not what the church could do for them.
“We are united in one spirit, and that is our secret,” he said.
Carolyn and Wayne Champion were among the founding couples of Christ Our Hope enjoying their homecoming. Carolyn served on the finance committee and Wayne on the building committee beginning in 1984.
They were part of the basement gatherings before the time when Mass was celebrated at the high school in Lithonia, and then at a local Methodist church. In 1987 the parish celebrated the dedication of the first multipurpose building. In 2001 Archbishop John F. Donoghue dedicated the new church.
“Father John (Kieran) was the priest who made us work,” said Wayne Champion.
The Champions, along with founders Duane and Anne Hunter and Ron and Jennie Taylor, were spending time catching up after Mass in the parish’s new memorial garden.
“This was a field here. I think we’ve picked up every rock here,” recalled Ron Taylor, onetime building committee chairman.
One of Hunter’s tasks was to go knock on doors to drum up funds. He would tell people, “The Lord put you and me here.”
The three couples have all since moved, and now attend either St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Lilburn or St. Oliver Plunkett Church in Snellville.
“This is a good group,” said Ron Taylor.
Realizing dream of a garden
Colin Wilkinson, who currently serves on the parish’s finance council and garden committee, encourages former parishioners to “always see themselves as parishioners.”
Christ Our Hope’s new memorial garden serves as a place where former parishioners can return to remember loved ones in prayer. With many parishioners from Africa, the Philippines, and a growing Hispanic population, the garden is a spot for people to visit if they cannot visit the graves of their loved ones elsewhere.
Wilkinson said the idea of a garden dates back to 2005 when Father Noel was named the parish’s fifth pastor.
“He had asked us to take ownership of the parish. We came up with a whole bucket list,” said Wilkinson.
A memorial garden was high on the list of priorities, but was tabled after security problems pushed the need for a parish-surrounding fence to the front burner.
During a Parish Pride Appeal, other priorities surfaced. But the timing for the memorial garden proved right as the 30th anniversary approached.
“Let’s try it again,” thought Wilkinson. “I kind of took the bull by the horn.”
Wilkinson said the entire campus of Christ Our Hope is a meditation garden with outdoor Stations of the Cross, some nestled under shade trees.
The new memorial garden includes a fountain and statues of Mary and Jesus. A cross, inlaid with engraved bricks, allows parishioners to donate bricks in memory of loved ones or friends.
“The vision is to encourage people to come to Mass a half hour early,” said Wilkinson.
A rosary garden is also planned around the fountain, and memorial benches will eventually be placed near the Stations of the Cross.
Wilkinson believes the garden is a “tangible” space where young people, perhaps waiting for a parent to get out of a meeting, can spend time.
“Something may happen. Somebody we know will speak to them,” he said.
Wilkinson originally moved to the area from New York in 1998, and he and his wife have raised their children at Christ Our Hope.
“We’re trying to make a home for families and youth ministry,” he said.
Another benefit of having a garden space is to bring people closer to where they worship.
Wilkinson said Christ Our Hope is somewhat of a transient parish with many families coming and going. “We need a few anchors,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory blessed the memorial garden following Mass, praying that those who come to the garden would find true worship.
Parishioners responded to each of the archbishop’s invocations. “Lord, make us like your Son,” they prayed.
Wilkinson said the parish is also considering the addition of an adoration chapel.
Wilkinson attends weekday Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain because of its proximity to his work, but finds the close-knit nature of Christ Our Hope drawing him back.
“What ties me over there is the size of it. You can make a difference,” said Wilkinson.
For information on Christ Our Hope’s memorial and meditation garden, visit www.christourhopeatl.org. Bricks can be donated in memory or thanksgiving of others and placed in a variety of locations on the church grounds. The church is located at 1786 Wellborn Road, Lithonia, Georgia 30058. Contact: 770-482-5017.