By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published September 4, 2015
CLAYTON—Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, in a June 24 decree, elevated the St. Helena Mission in Clayton to the status of a parish.
Father Pedro Poloche, former judicial vicar of the Metropolitan Tribunal, will serve as St. Helena’s pastor. It is his first pastorate.
“I’m so excited and not afraid to admit it,” said Father Poloche.
St. Helena, a mission of neighboring St. Mark Church in Clarkesville, has 250 registered families. In the summertime, the number of parishioners increases as seasonal residents come back.
The boundaries of the newly established parish will include all of Rabun County, the northeastern-most county in Georgia.
The decree is based on the church’s continued growth, demonstrated ability to financially support itself, consultation with pastors of surrounding parishes and the Council of Priests.
St. Helena has a Knights of Columbus council, a religious education program and many established ministries.
“I’m amazed how organized they are,” said Father Poloche.
The first Mass celebrated in Clayton was in 1956 when a priest from North Carolina came to serve the needs of a movie crew filming on location. After the movie was completed, the priest continued to travel to Clayton to serve the growing Catholic population, saying Mass at a community center or the American Legion Hall. A few years later, Bishop Francis Hyland of the then-Diocese of Atlanta authorized construction of a church in Clayton.
As a mission of generosity, parishioners of St. Helena Church in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, undertook financing nearly all the cost of the building project. They took up second collections at a monthly Mass dedicated to their adopted mission, and in 1961 the church building was formally dedicated.
Prior to 1964, St. Helena was a mission of the Verona Fathers from Toccoa. In May 1964 the Glenmary priests established St. Mark Parish in Clarkesville and also took on St. Helena. The archdiocese took over pastoral care of the parish and mission in 1992.
In August 2009, Archbishop Gregory dedicated a new church building to meet the needs of the growing community. Construction of a family life center followed.
First-time pastor learned from example of Msgr. Tom Kenny
Father Poloche was ordained in 1998 at Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta and served for eight years as a parochial vicar in parishes across the archdiocese. He attended The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., to study canon law and earned his licentiate in canon law in 2008. He served as an auditor at the tribunal, a role in which one collects testimony from a party or witness in a marriage annulment case, and then as the judicial vicar.
A native of Colombia, South America, Father Poloche moved to the United States in 1996. He speaks Spanish, English and Portuguese. Father Poloche also served as a vicar for Hispanic clergy in the archdiocese.
Most recently, Father Poloche has been living in Washington, D.C., handling tribunal-related work there.
After a trip to Colombia, he returned to visit St. Helena parishioners in mid-August.
“We had the celebration of our patroness,” he said. “It’s a great community.”
Although Father Poloche comes from the countryside of Colombia, he has been mostly living in urban settings recently.
“The first two nights I was having trouble getting to sleep. It was so quiet,” he said of his new rural environs.
Father Poloche said he will spend the coming days getting to know the ministry leaders, the people of the parish, and their expectations.
As he begins his pastorate, “I do not intend to change anything,” he said.
Father Poloche said his parish priest in Colombia would visit the sick on first Fridays, a practice also emphasized to him by the late Msgr. Tom Kenny of Atlanta.
While serving as a parochial vicar at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, Father Poloche learned a lot from its then-pastor, Msgr. Kenny. The pastor encouraged the young priest to visit the sick and the homebound in their time of need.
“You go there,” Msgr. Kenny told him. “You make the church present.”
Father Poloche also plans to enjoy the natural beauty of Rabun County, perhaps hiking a bit.
“Everyone tells me the fall season is breathtaking,” he said.
He hiked the Way of St. James or Camino Santiago in Spain during the summer of 2013. The pilgrimage was the “most amazing experience of my life,” said Father Poloche.
To learn more about St. Helena Church, visit: http://www.sthelenachclayton.com/.