By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published October 5, 2017
SANDY SPRINGS—Amid Brazil’s grinding recession and political crisis, Sandra Fernandes and her husband found an opportunity in 2016 to transfer with his company and relocate their family from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta. While making the decision, she prayed about it and discovered online an encouraging sign—a Brazilian Catholic community in the archdiocese at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Sandy Springs and Holy Family Church in Marietta.
Soon after reaching Atlanta, Fernandes met with the ministry leader, Father João Gualberto Ribeiro da Silva, and found a spiritual home at St. Jude the Apostle Church. She now attends a weekly prayer group and Mass in Portuguese at 7 p.m. on Sundays.
“It felt so good. First of all, there were Brazilians. It was so good to be in contact with your language again, to pray in your language again. If I have to confess in English it’s all right, but I don’t feel so comfortable to talk in English. And Father João is so blessed, so special,” she said. “He’s a spiritual father to me and my husband. He makes me grow in my faith and communion with God. He’s so spiritual that in these 15 months he has changed many things in my heart.”
Fernandes is mindful of loved ones in her homeland, enduring its worst recession in its history.
“We have all these problems in our country. We are facing a bad time. People are losing their jobs. My husband was close to losing his job, and this opportunity came and it’s a blessing,” she said.
Brazilian ministry celebrates two decades
For the past four years, Father Gualberto has challenged members of Atlanta’s Brazilian Catholic community, encouraging them to go deeper in prayer, formation and consciousness of God’s presence through the struggles of immigration. The priest has welcomed newcomers and helped them to find fellowship and peace in Christ in striving for a better life.
There are an estimated 337,000 Brazilian immigrants in the United States and an estimated 8,000 in metro Atlanta, according to the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey.
In the archdiocese, the ministry has 400 members, primarily living in Marietta, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta. They largely hail from the city of Goianîa, as well as the states of São Paulo and Paraná in Brazil.
The ministry celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, having taken root in October 1997 when Jesuit Father Jack Vessels first celebrated Portuguese Mass at Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center. By 1999 Father Pedro Poloche had added a monthly Mass at St. Jude. In 2002 Brazilian Father Sebastian Andrade took charge of leading the ministry, followed by Father Roger Araujo.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory appointed Father Gualberto to minister to the Portuguese-speaking community in April 2013.
The Brazilian priest is part of the Cançâo Nova, or New Song, lay community, which received pontifical approval in 2008. New Song evangelizes through popular media. Father Gualberto returned to Cachoeira Paulista in Brazil Sept. 27 to work in the community’s television and radio ministry. Interim priests will lead the ministry until a new Brazilian priest arrives by 2018.
“We have people drive 40 to 50 minutes to be here, part of the Brazilian community. I learned most of the people, when they come here to the U.S., they come for a better life. But it’s very important to help these people to find God in this reality. It’s a very beautiful and a very challenging process. In the middle of this challenging process they open their hearts to God to have an encounter with God, to really approach God, even if they come with another goal,” Father Gualberto said. “Sometimes, through the suffering of this process, they find out the meaning of their lives and find God.”
Father Gualberto never intended to serve in the United States but simply answered a call for a Brazilian priest in Atlanta. He feels grateful for his time in the archdiocese, where he was warmly welcomed and oriented to the local church.
Father Gualberto said he was inspired by the multicultural spirit and impressive level of organization, resources and lay leadership.
“I feel happy to have been in this country. The experience was very profound in America, especially in seeing the differences in American and Brazilian culture. These four years between the Anglo and Hispanic community were very rich to learn about how to live between these three cultures,” he reflected. “In both parishes we are very welcome and in St. Jude we are trying to do an integrated ministry with the Anglos.”
Ministry includes Mass, catechesis
The ministry meets a critical need. Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population at around 123 million, but the percentage of Catholics has been declining for decades while membership is rising steadily for Protestant churches in Brazil.
“We know many Brazilians when they arrive here, because they didn’t find a Catholic church, they start to go to another church in Portuguese because of the language,” he added. “It’s really important to bring people here to the church.”
Father Gualberto estimates that there could be as many as 15,000 Brazilian immigrants in Georgia with many of them not attending Catholic churches.
“We have an active ministry here and a place they can come,” he said.
At St. Jude, the ministry includes catechesis in a mixture of Portuguese and English for children and youth, with 50 participants last year. Brazil native Rosana Szvarca serves as the parish liaison to Brazilian clergy, hired last September and serving previously as a volunteer for nine years.
“My true conversion was here in the U.S., and I saw the necessity to have this ministry because the situation of immigrants is so hard. They come here to work, and they work a lot,” said Szvarca.
She said Father Gualberto did a great job in helping community members live a more profound prayer life.
This year, the ministry had a vigil for the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima and one at Pentecost. The plan is to continue to have more vigils and adoration hours.
“I have been growing in my knowledge of the Bible and I feel close to God, and the meaning of this is just trying to live the Gospel, to do what Jesus asks us to do and share whatever you have with people who can be helped with the small amount we have,” said Szvarca. “Working with Father Gualberto was very meaningful because he has a very strong spiritual life and has taught me how to deal with difficult situations with trust, prayer and confidence.”
Honoring Brazil’s patroness
On Oct. 12, the ministry will hold the anniversary Mass honoring Brazil’s patroness Our Lady of Aparecida. The Mass celebrates the 300th anniversary of the discovery of an image of Our Lady by fishermen at the Paraíba do Sul River in Brazil. The Mass will be at Holy Family at 8 p.m., preceded by a novena alternating between the parishes starting Oct. 3.
“In Brazil it’s very important to have vigils and prayer groups. It’s very important to have celebrations of Our Lady of Aparecida. It’s a way we can live this here in the U.S. and also in our language. It’s also important for parents to have children to be formed in both languages,” said Szvarca.
Community member Glauciane Mendonça developed a devotion to Our Lady of Aparecida from her mother and looks forward to the annual fall celebration. “It’s busy because I have to be out of my house every night for nine days, but it’s very important. It’s like a retreat, prayers and Masses,” said Mendonça, whose husband sings in the Portuguese choir.
Mendonça was inspired by Father Gualberto to take on new roles. She participates in a Bible study on Wednesdays and serves in confirmation preparation, where parents also receive formation after dropping off their children.
“He saw what we really needed, to grow spiritually,” she said. “I pray more deeply and I feel I’d like to know more about my faith. I started a group Bible study.”
As for Fernandes, she too feels gratitude to have a church family in the United States, particularly now while undergoing treatment for the earliest stage of breast cancer.
“I’m going to miss (Father Gualberto) so much and I hope a new priest comes soon,” she said. “I’m very thankful to the St. Jude community and for all that they do, not only for the American community, but for Hispanics and Brazilians. I feel at home. The church is so beautiful and peaceful.”
Portuguese Mass is celebrated Sundays at 7 p.m. and on the first Friday of the month at 8 p.m. at St. Jude the Apostle Church, 7171 Glenridge Drive, Sandy Springs, and every Tuesday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Holy Family Church, 3401 Lower Roswell Road, Marietta.