By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2015
MONROE—The gleaming white bell tower of St. Anna Church in Monroe is a new landmark on the landscape of Walton County.
St. Anna parishioners celebrated the culmination of seven years of planning, work and sacrifice at a Mass of dedication for their new church July 26 — the feast day of St. Anna and St. Joachim.
Bishop Luis R. Zarama joined Father Dan Toof, pastor, to celebrate the Mass.
Built on a 13-acre site, the new structure includes a church sanctuary to seat 370 to 400 people, a day chapel, classrooms, a parish hall and offices.
“I love it. It brings tears to my eyes,” said longtime parishioner Gloria Briscoe.
The community had outgrown its East Spring Street church, constructed in the late 1950s. The new church is located three miles away on Alcovy Road near the intersection of Criswell and Monroe-Jersey Roads.
The stained glass above the altar of the old church was moved to the chapel of the new church as a way to remember the parish’s history.
“We have managed to bring a lot of little things as well,” said Daniela Wieczorek, capital campaign co-chair.
Wieczorek, a parishioner since 2004, said members of St. Anna’s founding families have been among the most supportive.
In the summer of 1954, Dot Briscoe, Catherine Melton and Mrs. J.T. Wellborn sold magazine subscriptions to raise money for the church’s original property. Before then, families had to drive to Athens for Mass.
Briscoe’s daughter, Vickie Chancey, said the then two-lane road to Athens always made for a long trip.
“We didn’t have the fancy cars like today,” recalled Chancey.
New church built on parishioners’ sacrifices
The Mass began outside with Bishop Zarama praying for open hearts and minds to receive God’s word. Those gathered processed into the sanctuary led by the bishop sprinkling water to remind all of their baptisms.
In his homily, Bishop Zarama noted that the readings of the day “match exactly what we need for this occasion.”
The responsorial psalm was from Psalms 145—“The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.” The Gospel reading from John 6 was the miracle of the multiplication of the fishes and loaves to feed a hungry crowd.
Bishop Zarama compared the hungry crowd to the need of St. Anna’s parishioners for a new church and perhaps their initial questions about accomplishing the project.
“How will we be able to build something? I don’t know. … It’s too much,” said Bishop Zarama. “Many of you were praying a lot.”
In the Gospel reading, it was one boy’s act of giving what he had to Jesus that caused the miracle to happen.
“Look at what happens with a little boy with some bread and fish. What he was teaching you to do was to give whatever you have,” said the bishop. “The little boy did not give the leftovers. It was a sacrifice.”
When members of St. Anna gave one dollar or five dollars or $1,000 “little by little” and put all they had together with prayer, something good happened.
Bishop Zarama told the worshipers that they would now be more comfortable to celebrate the mystery of love in the Eucharist.
It is not a piece of bread, reminded the bishop. “It’s Jesus himself,” he said.
The bishop encouraged parishioners also to look at themselves.
“It’s not only the building that makes a place beautiful,” said Bishop Zarama.
It is important to consecrate our hearts like the altar and to practice love, especially in our own homes. “Sometimes it is the biggest challenge,” he acknowledged.
People say they love their house, their pets, even pizza.
“Everything that makes me happy … I love that,” quipped the bishop.
In reality, he added, the true meaning of love is sacrifice, which brings joy.
Crosses carved from live oak tree
The Mass included a prayer of dedication, followed by anointing of the altar with sacred chrism by the bishop.
Father Anthony Curran, first pastor of St. Anna, and Father Toof anointed crosses located in the four corners of the church with chrism.
Father Toof said the crosses were made with wood from a more than century-old live oak tree on the property. Four different parishioners crafted the crosses from pieces of the hollowed-out tree.
Bishop Zarama then incensed the altar, and candles were placed near the altar to signify illumination.
During the Mass, the choir led the Litany of Saints, which included the namesakes of holy men and women from the parish who have died.
Father Toof recalled walking the property years ago to pray the rosary with another priest. “It was so thick with growth, we got lost,” he said.
The property has undergone an amazing transformation since the groundbreaking in September 2013. Years of planning and a multiphase capital campaign paved the way for the groundbreaking.
“This has meant the world to our parish,” said Father Toof.
The project was a design/build contract with Ron Cantrell Construction as contractor and George Hlavenka as the architect.
The pastor thanked many of those involved in the process, including Dennis Kelly, senior project manager with Catholic Construction Services.
“It so true that we all depend on others,” said Father Toof.
The pastor had thoughts to share with his parishioners as well.
“I thank God for you all, and that’s my final word,” he said.
Before dismissal, Bishop Zarama noted that one final element was missing and asked the pastor to take his seat in the sanctuary to rousing applause.
Families donate antique bells
Wieczorek said it was amazing to be part of the celebration. Her three sons served as altar servers for the dedication Mass, and she hopes they will return with their own children one day to share their role in the parish’s history.
“It was my first experience with a dedication,” said Wieczorek.
She called it a blessing to get to know and work with capital campaign co-chair Ed Reinagel. “We worked so well together,” she said.
She believes the Holy Spirit guided them through the process. “Here we are … a bunch of volunteers,” she said about their experience level.
The cost of the project from site preparation to building completion was over $4 million.
The second phase of the campaign was the most difficult, said Wieczorek. “We asked people to trust us with their money,” she explained
The new structure is 19,300 square feet. The tabernacle can be seen from both the sanctuary and the day chapel, which seats 40. The chapel is accessible from the exterior so that it may be used in the future for nocturnal adoration.
Religious education for the upcoming school year is set to begin on schedule with 14 classrooms featuring removable partitions for larger groups. The parish office suite has three offices, a library, a workroom, reception area and room to expand.
The parish hall can accommodate table seating for 250 people and is adjoined by a full-service kitchen.
Kelly said that the building was a long time in coming but worth the effort.
“I’m so proud and happy for them,” said Kelly by email.
The stained glass featured in the sanctuary is a high-grade film applique to be replaced at a later date with traditional windows. Smaller windows feature the Stations of the Cross.
Father Toof said the Odum family has specially ordered a dove to place in the narthex above the baptismal font. The font is not complete and will feature a removable bowl. “It’s worth the wait,” said Father Toof.
The pastor said a crucified Christ will be placed above the altar, and as parishioners turn to leave the sanctuary, there will be an image of the risen Christ.
Parishioners have provided many of the ideas for the design and decoration of the worship space.
“The best idea doesn’t care who had it,” said Father Toof in quoting campaign co-chair Reinagel.
The bells have a special history and were donated to St. Anna.
Father Toof said the larger of the two bells, donated by Ron and Helen Cantrell, was cast in St. Louis around 1913 and features a quote about temperance. It weighs 600 pounds.
The smaller bell, cast in 1886, weighs 100 pounds. Howard and Pat Green donated the bell, which played a part in local history.
“It was used on a farm in Walnut Grove in Walton County,” shared Father Toof.
The bell was once used to call workers in the field in for their midday meal.
The bell tower is topped with a white cross.
The Monroe community at large has taken notice of the new church and offered words of appreciation for its beauty.
“For us, it’s a pretty building, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Wieczorek.