By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published March 9, 2017
ATHENS—Josephine Strickland was baptized in 1932 at St. Joseph Church. The fifth generation of her family to worship there, she had the task of ceremoniously closing its 1912 doors with a timeworn padlock.
“I thought of all the things that happened here. I’m going to miss it. It will always be special to me,” said Strickland, who walks now with assistance.
“I was reminiscing—in this spot, so and so was baptized—seeing my life.”
Several hundred people jammed into the church on Monday, Feb. 20, lining the walls and spilling out into the entryway. Those out of sight of the church relied on speakers with intermittent sound to listen to the prayers said aloud in Spanish and English.
St. Joseph Church, and until recently St. Joseph School, sat on this six-acre plot in downtown Athens since the late 1800s. The church, which has been expanded during the years, was dedicated in 1913. The corner lot soon will be a construction site. Homes Urban, a South Carolina firm, intends to build 126 apartments there. Plans are for the former church to be used as a restaurant.
The sale price is about $5.25 million. The proceeds will help pay for a new church on the larger site where the school already operates.
The Catholic Church does not have an official ceremony to mark the end of a church’s sacred use. Instead, it happens automatically when the property changes hands. As church law puts it, the “diocesan bishop can relegate it to profane but not sordid use.”
How to sum up 100 years
By the 7 p.m. start of the last Mass at the Prince Avenue church, worshipers filled every pew. Announcements were made for parishioners to move together to allow more of their members to find a seat. Knights of Columbus, with colorful hats and swords, formed an honor guard, as priests and deacons, along with servers carrying a cross, candles and incense, made their way to the altar.
Prayers in the Mass were said in the two languages, reflecting the diversity of the worshiping community.
“How in God’s name can I sum up 100 years?” asked pastor Father David McGuinness, who received large applause at the end of the Mass. “The past is over. We have much to be proud of,” he said.
He reminded the crowd when the cornerstone was put down for the church building in the early 1900s it wasn’t always easy to be Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant South.
“We are on the broad shoulders” of priests, sisters, deacons and lay Catholics who put down the foundation of the faith in this area, he said.
Looking to the Bible, Father McGuiness said the parish experience now is similar to the history of the Israelite people told in the Book of Joshua. Moses, their leader, had died and they faced confusion despite God’s promise to care for them in “the land of milk and honey.” But by putting God in the center, with faith in his care for them, the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land, he said.
“If we keep going, marvelous things can happen,” he said. “I’m calling on all of us to become one unit, one community.”
There will be much work to be done and it will require the efforts of many people, especially the younger members, to complete the unfinished business of building a new church and establishing a new community, he said.
Sadness and hope
The new location on Epps Bridge Parkway already is home to the parish school, since the 2012-2013 school year. All worship is now also taking place on the new campus. The parish has more room to accommodate the various language groups and more facilities for the parishioners to get to know each other on the 47-acre property. The goal is to build a church without taking on debt.
This final Mass was a look back for many with bittersweet feelings but also an acknowledgement the future remains to be written.
Bob Morris started to attend the church in 1965. He graduated from the school in 1979. He was here for the final Mass with his wife, Denise, and son, Will.
“I’m a lifelong member of Athens. So it’s been a big part of our family,” he said, stalling before he exited the building. Attending the final Mass was to have “one more experience on Prince Avenue,” he said.
“It’s sad, but it’s the start of a new beginning. The past has been very good. Now, it’s time to focus on the future,” he said.
Amanda Wilson was brought to the church to be baptized; in fact, she received all her sacraments there, including marriage. She attended the school, too. Now 36, her own two children were baptized there. Her parents, Eddie and Miriam Hilario, were married there in 1979.
“It’s very bittersweet,” she said, pausing to stop her tears. “Just looking around and remembering every pew where our family has sat over the years.”
“This place has been such a big part of our family spiritual life. There’s no way I would have missed it,” said Wilson. “It’s hard to say goodbye, but we’re excited to look forward to what the future holds in our new location.”