By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 20, 2015
DAHLONEGA—It was a twofold celebration for parishioners of St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Dahlonega on the solemn feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Following the vigil Mass Aug. 15, almost seven years to the date of dedicating its parish hall in 2008, the parish community unveiled its new Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and burned the paid-in-full mortgage note for the hall.
“We’ve got a lot to be grateful for and to celebrate,” said Father Neil Dhabliwala, pastor.
A successful capital campaign started in 2013, combined with an anonymous donation, allowed the parish to retire debts on both the center and rectory. When Father Dhabliwala became pastor four years ago, there was more than $1 million in loan debt remaining on the two buildings.
The capital campaign met its goal of $750,000 early with nearly 60 percent of the parish participating. The campaign was scheduled to be complete in March 2016 and will continue until that time. Any excess raised will be used to build reserves for future capital projects ranging from heating and air upgrades to replacement of the sound system or other needed projects.
“Obviously our work continues. Where do we want to go?” asked Father Dhabliwala.
“I want to make sure we are thinking of and praying for our future,” said the pastor.
In his homily, the pastor outlined areas of spiritual focus for St. Luke including to “be a church that sings and prays with real devotion.”
Father Dhabliwala asked all parishioners to pray for those involved with the church’s religious education program, including the children, youth, and those in the RCIA program.
“They need your support and encouragement,” he said.
As students at the University of North Georgia in Dahlonega prepared for another year, Father Dhabliwala welcomed them to the community.
“I hope you will make St. Luke’s your home,” he said.
A second generous donor made several aesthetic improvements to the sanctuary possible. Those attending the Aug. 15 Mass were getting a first look at the freshly painted space, including a new hue for the ceiling—a warm sky blue color. Father Dhabliwala thanked artist Melanie Nelson for gold highlights added in the sanctuary, and the anonymous gift giver. Other improvements, such as upholstery for choir seats, are planned.
“God has truly blessed our parish in so many ways,” said the pastor.
It’s a time to give thanks for much, said Father Dhabliwala, “especially the gift of His very self.”
Lourdes water poured into stream at grotto
Deacon Dennis Dorner, chancellor of the archdiocese, attended the Mass and helped dedicate the grotto.
Parishioners joyfully sang the recessional hymn “Hail Holy Queen Enthroned Above” before filing out to the grotto, nestled in between the parish center and the sanctuary. Musicians performing at an outdoor concert across the street took a break out of respect for those attending the dedication.
Father Dhabliwala encouraged looking to Mary to carry out the work of the apostolate. “The Church recognizes Mary as the model of the path and the practice it must follow to reach complete union with Christ,” he said.
Deacon Dorner read the Magnificat from the Gospel of St. Luke.
Father Dhabliwala asked for Mary’s intercession to bless her children, the parishioners who provided the shrine.
“May they search for peace and strive for justice,” he prayed.
The grotto includes a water feature and engraved brick pavers donated by parishioners. Father Dhabliwala poured water from Lourdes, France, into the stream of the grotto.
A stone marker with a plaque shares the story of the young girl Bernadette Soubirous who witnessed several apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Lourdes in 1858. A spring of water at Lourdes became the site of miracles of healing, drawing crowds there that have never diminished. Lourdes is one of a small number of Marian apparitions confirmed as authentic by the Church. Bernadette, who became a nun, was canonized in 1933.
The grotto of St. Luke features statues of Mary and a kneeling St. Bernadette and a niche for votive candles.
The grotto project took three months from planning to completion. It is the parish’s hope that the community and guests in Dahlonega will visit the Marian grotto to pray and reflect.
Parishioner Joe Brown was one of several who spent Friday cleaning up and readying the parish for Saturday’s celebration. He has been attending Mass at St. Luke’s since 1979 and recalled a membership of 15 people at one time. He wondered then if the parish would make it.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Brown.
A celebratory dinner and mortgage burning followed the grotto dedication. Father Dhabliwala read letters of congratulations from Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and former pastor Father Bob Frederick.
Capital campaign co-chairs Bob Grove and Richard Hagler both attribute good leadership rooted in prayer and a high level of donor participation for helping exceed goals.
“Our parish family has rallied behind Father Neil due to his leadership in both spiritual and business matters,” said Grove, a St. Luke parishioner for 11 years. “People see the good and want to be part of it.”
Grove said one key element of the campaign was making it not just about paying a debt, but focusing on supporting existing ministries and to contemplate adding other ministries once debt free.
Hagler believed the road to success began soon after the pastor’s arrival when his first project was to build an adoration chapel.
“He showed us that his priority was clearly our spiritual health and that spiritual growth is greatly enhanced by time spent with the Blessed Sacrament,” said Hagler.
A committee formed to write a special prayer, which was read at each Mass prior to the kickoff of the campaign. Other volunteers ran a giving tree program and developed marketing materials.
When the tallying was completed, the vast majority of giving came from those donating less than $32 a week, said Hagler.
“I thought this was incredible,” said Hagler. “Today the parish is strong again financially and growing spiritually.”