By ERIKA ANDERSON, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 17, 2015
JONESBORO—Fifty years ago, in a small Georgia town yet untouched by metro Atlanta sprawl, 40 families took the first steps toward forming a Catholic church. They put their children to work cleaning a drug store that would serve as the first worship space. They optimistically set up chairs for 125 guests.
That day—Sept. 12, 1965—more than 200 eager Catholics filled the space, pleasantly surprising those who’d worked so hard to make it a reality. Fifty years to the day later, parishioners young and old, representing dozens of countries and nationalities, overflowed St. Philip Benizi Church to celebrate the 50th anniversary.
Mike Stephens was a 10-year-old altar server at that first Mass 50 years ago. His mother, Annie, served as the church housekeeper for more than 10 years. And when Stephens’ father died suddenly a few months after the parish was formed, his funeral was the first Catholic funeral to be celebrated in Clayton County.
“They didn’t even have the things needed for a funeral. They had to go to the Shrine to get everything,” he said.
Stephens has since moved from Jonesboro and attends the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta. But St. Philip Benizi will always be his home. He fondly remembers growing up in the church with friends with whom he still keeps in touch.
“It was just 40 families and all their kids—lots of kids. I was one of six. It was the center of our lives. I wouldn’t have missed this,” he said. “This church represents so much love from so many people.”
Stephens was one of a handful of founding families who attended the Mass. St. Philip Benizi now has more than 2,300 families and is staffed by the Conventual Franciscan Friars of St. Anthony of Padua Province, including Father John Koziol, OFM Conv., pastor. Father James McCurry, OFM Conv., minister provincial, celebrated the jubilee Mass, which featured music and prayers in many different languages.
In his homily, Father McCurry said St. Philip Benizi had gathered a people of faith and love—and that was reason to celebrate.
“Faith and works of charity have categorized your parish for 50 years,” he said. “God and the saints and angels in heaven must be pointing out St. Philip Benizi to the others who enter the heavenly city to ‘have a look at that parish. Aren’t they reflective of God’s hope? Aren’t they men and women of faith and charity?’ And it’s that reality we are celebrating today.”
Father McCurry asked the parishioners how they had become a church of faith and love throughout the years.
“Quite simply, because you’ve recognized central in your midst, the person and presence of Jesus Christ,” he said. “We live in a world that’s looking for Jesus Christ.”
The world has changed since St. Philip Benizi began, Father McCurry said, but their faith has remained steadfast.
“Fifty years ago, the South was in the throes of the civil rights movement. Fifty years ago, the church was in the throes of the Second Vatican Council. Fifty years ago, our country was in the throes of a Southeast Asian war. Fifty years ago, many of you weren’t even alive. Much has happened. And 50 years ago, there was no Internet,” he said. “The one changeless reality at St. Philip Benizi in 50 years has been: You are the Christ, Jesus Christ—changeless in our midst. And Jesus Christ surrounded for 50 years by a faith and love community we call the people of God.”
“We are forever grateful for these founding families”
The Mass was filled with sounds from the Jubilee Choir, made up of voices from the various chorale groups at St. Philip Benizi. Many parishioners wore T-shirts emblazoned with the 50th anniversary logo with the words of the parish statement: “Walking United as Faithful Disciples of Jesus Christ.” Several priests concelebrated the Mass, including fellow Franciscans and former pastors and parochial vicars. The Franciscans have staffed the parish since 1991.
Father Koziol shared a bit of the parish history, beginning with the Mass in the drugstore. The late Msgr. Daniel O’Connor was the priest in charge of the new mission and borrowed items from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers needed to celebrate Mass. As word spread that a Catholic church had formed, they soon outgrew their space. Land for a permanent church home was purchased in 1966. Msgr. O’Connor became the first pastor when St. Philip Benizi was made a parish in 1967. That October, Archbishop Paul J. Hallinan dedicated the first church building, which now serves as the parish hall. The current church was built in 1988.
“I’m sure that those who celebrated that first Mass could not have imagined what St. Philip’s would eventually become,” Father Koziol said.
Father Koziol announced the parish hall now would be called Founders Hall, in honor of everyone who had helped the Catholic community in Clayton County.
“It is very appropriate that we honor our founders and families in this way,” he said. “It was their deep faith, vision, courage and creative energy that gave birth to St. Philip Benizi Church. We are forever grateful for these founding families. Today we are a vibrant faith community—wonderfully diverse and yet united by our faith in Jesus Christ.”
Following the Mass, parishioners gathered under a large tent for food, fellowship and entertainment provided by a live band. Many parishioners spoke of their great love for their parish community.
Mary Millay has been a parishioner since she and her family moved to Jonesboro 31 years ago.
“Even then, they were so very welcoming. We never felt like we were strangers. We were immediately welcomed with open arms,” she said. “I love that everyone expresses their love so openly. Everyone is excited to be a part of this. It’s contagious.”
Kathy Edwards said the Mass was very emotional for her. She proudly wore a pin with a photo of her parents, who were original members of the church. She remembers, as a 10-year-old, preparing for that first Mass in the pharmacy.
“My mother handed me a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and made me clean this huge window,” she said. “She warned me that she could see me from wherever she was.”
The church has been a significant part of Edwards’ life.
“I met my husband here. My children were baptized here,” she said. “This church is my life. I can’t imagine life without it. It’s such a love-filled parish. I don’t think I’d feel at home in any other church.”