Published December 21, 2017
ATLANTA—As 2017 nears its conclusion, it’s time to look back at some of the significant stories of the Catholic community in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
With some two dozen issues of The Georgia Bulletin published each year, inevitably great stories are overlooked and left out. We know that parishes, ministries and believers quietly offer women, men and children a hand up, bind wounds and take steps toward improving the lives of those people Jesus called “the least of these.”
We cover as many of these stories as possible. We strive to share the stories as a time capsule of the million-strong community of Catholics living in faith in north and middle Georgia. Hopefully, you’ll see news throughout the year that impacts you and touches your heart.
To wrap up 2017, we’ve updated some of the stories, letting you know how people are doing months after the initial publication of our articles.
Marietta deacon loses home of 10 years
MARIETTA—In March, Deacon Norm Keller and his wife, Barbara, lost their home after a private plane crashed into their front yard and exploded.
The fire ravaged the house and the mementos collected during their marriage. The focus quickly turned from the house toward the pilot, who died in the crash.
“He was a father and a grandfather, just like me. We pray they are comforted,” said Deacon Keller at the time.
Deacon Keller serves at St. Joseph Church in Marietta in addition to working in prisons and jails.
Deacon Keller and his wife have settled into a new house six months after a private plane crashed in their yard, causing a blazing fire that destroyed their Marietta home.
“We moved in on Sept. 18. It’s about four miles from where we used to live,” said Deacon Keller.
The couple’s new home is in Kennesaw and was blessed by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory Nov. 29.
On March 24, the Kellers were attending Stations of the Cross and a Lenten fish fry at their parish when a Cessna Citation crashed on their property. The pilot, who died in the crash, had reported mechanical difficulties. The plane exploded, and the fire, fed by jet fuel, rapidly consumed the Vistawood Lane home where the Kellers had lived for 10 years.
The couple believes that if they had been home, the outcome would’ve been different due to the nature of the fire. It was common practice for the deacon to sit on the front porch and say evening prayers.
“The thing is … we figure both of us probably would not have survived,” said Deacon Keller. “It was really so ironic that it was just our house.”
They are grateful to the community—from first responders to businesses and churches—for supporting them in the aftermath.
“The whole community rallied around us. You learn what Christian love is all about,” said Deacon Keller.
The Kellers stayed with their daughter while dealing with insurance and property matters, until they could move into a new home.
“There were so many Simons of Cyrene who came to our aid and helped us carry the cross,” he said.
While sentimental photos and items were lost in the fire, charred statues of Mary and St. Joseph holding Jesus remained and are now at the new home.
The Kellers continue to pray for the family of the deceased pilot, Robert Westlake, who will have their first holiday without their father.
A retired mechanical engineer, Deacon Keller was ordained to the diaconate in 2011. He serves in the archdiocesan prison and jail ministry, ministering to those in jails and prisons, including death row inmates.
The Kellers celebrated a wedding anniversary in the fall.
“We’re 49-year newlyweds,” said Deacon Keller.
They have a Christmas tree for the home, and Barbara is slowly filling the home with needed items.
“It was such a wonderful day—the cherry on top of the sundae,” said the deacon about the blessing by Archbishop Gregory.
Barbara’s three friends from St. Joseph—Joanne Beckman, Kay Beckman and Kathy Landry—all attended the blessing. They were with Barbara when she first learned of the fire from her husband and their parish priests.
“To have the archbishop with his enormously busy schedule take some time to do this blessing for us is quite an honor,” wrote Barbara Keller in an email. “Deacons bless houses all the time, but we are indeed so grateful to have had the archbishop’s support through all of this that it seemed most fitting for him to do the blessing.”
Amigos for Christ inspires trio of young women
FLOWERY BRANCH—Three doctors who are just starting their careers were inspired to the medical field in part by volunteering as youngsters with Amigos for Christ. The nonprofit organization grew out of a youth group project at Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch, in 1999.
Amigos volunteers work in and around the city of Chinandega, in the northwest part of Nicaragua to serve the poor.
Rachel Johnson, Alex Olney and Anna Sulimirski Strasma are medical residents. The trio met as youngsters and at Prince of Peace Church, Flowery Branch.
They all have made multiple trips to the Central American country with Amigos for Christ to work alongside locals to bring drinkable water to villages or with health education.
Strasma researched a chronic kidney disease found in Nicara guan men. The disease is called Mesoamerican nephropathy. It creates trouble for economically struggling families, because men are typically the breadwinners of their families.
The three young doctors are in various stages of medical residencies in Georgia and Texas.
Amigos for Christ recently developed a new partnership with the community of El Pedregal and its 200 families who deal with contaminated water, disease and harsh living conditions on a daily basis. El Pedregal is the 18th community to have a formal community partnership with Amigos For Christ.
The nonprofit is currently conducting a Gifts of Opportunity campaign for Christmas. Through the campaign, donors can provide funds for clean-air kitchens, modern bathrooms, chickens for Nicaraguan families, or feed a student for one year.
In September, the Georgia office of Amigos for Christ moved to a new location in Buford.
New auxiliary bishop named for Atlanta
ATLANTA—For a brief time in 2017, two auxiliary bishops served the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Pope Francis appointed then Father Bernard “Ned” Shlesinger III as an auxiliary bishop in May.
He came here from his post as the director of spiritual formation at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Bishop Shlesinger was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina
He joined Bishop Luis R. Zarama in helping Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory serve the Catholic community. But in July, just a few months later, Bishop Zarama was named to take the post as the spiritual leader of the Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh. (Yes, we gained one of that diocese’s priests and that diocese gained our bishop. God’s funny that way.)
Bishop Shlesinger, a Virginia native and Air Force veteran, was ordained to serve in the Atlanta Archdiocese in July.
Bishop Shlesinger said the past months have been about “learning a whole new family”—traditions, history, unspoken ways of doing things.
“Every time I go to a place, it’s a new parish, a new community,” he said.
And then there are his administrative duties as an assistant bishop, helping to guide the million-plus Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” he said. And there’s an email inbox that never reaches empty. His practice is to remind himself that behind every email is a person and “not to see tasks” to finish.
He described it as being the “servant of the vocations of many.”
In his office is a painting Bishop Shlesinger points to with pride. Originally done by a cloistered nun, it is a gift from the Respect Life Office in his former diocese. In the painting, Eve reaches out to touch the swollen belly of the Blessed Mother. A snake wraps itself around the ankle of Eve. The serpent stretches toward St. Mary, who crushes its head.
Also adorning the office wall is a map of the 69 counties of the archdiocese, and dotting the map are the locations of missions and parishes. Red stars mark the places the bishop has visited. He’s traveled to about 30 places so far. To him, the travels reveal the multicultural face of the Atlanta church, he said.
Being new to the area and this role, he said his focus is to offer a “ministry of presence,” not to troubleshoot or resolve challenges, but to encounter people and learn, he said.
Said Bishop Shlesinger, “The most important part is to be supportive to the people, who are also doing the work of Christ.”
A new school for Cristo Rey students
ATLANTA—The Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School community and faculty welcomed its first senior class this fall, as the school moved into a new revamped building.
The Jesuit-sponsored high school, for students from families with lower incomes, outgrew its original Midtown Atlanta site where it opened in August 2014.
A former corporate headquarters at 222 Piedmont Avenue was converted into this newest location of the Catholic high school and the first in downtown Atlanta since the 1970s. The academic building renovation added 28 classrooms, a cafeteria and kitchen, among other needed spaces.
Members of the senior class are the freshmen who opened Cristo Rey Atlanta a mere four years ago.
The latest addition to the downtown school was the completed construction of the gymnasium, the home court of the Cristo Rey Flames. A photo shared on Instagram by the school showed basketballers practicing shooting hoops and cheerleaders in formation. The gym was built over a parking deck on John Portman Boulevard (Harris Street).
The dedication of the high school and the Robert M. Fink Family Gymnasium is scheduled for January.
Two long-time services for homeless men and women close in 2017
ATLANTA—The Open Door Community, on Ponce de Leon Avenue, shuttered at the beginning of the year as its founders aged into their 70s and 80s. This ministry in the spirit of the Catholic Worker movement offered encounters and service to women and men, with a respite from the streets with hot meals, showers and fresh clothes. One amenity offered was a popular foot clinic, allowing people who were on their feet all the time to get treated.
Members of Open Door served the community for more than three decades. While people hard on their luck made the way up Ponce de Leon to the site, the neighborhood around the place went upscale. Trendy pizza shops replaced service stations. The hotel where rooms could be rented cheaply became a boutique.
In addition, a large shelter at the corner of Peachtree and Pine Streets in Atlanta closed in August. It offered hundreds of people shelter from the elements, although critics said it was just warehousing people without taking care of their more intensive needs.
Other Atlanta ministries to the homeless are responding to the closure of other services. At Central Night Shelter, the 100-bed service for men continues to be full.
Ana Bailie, a longtime member of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and leader with the shelter, said some of the male clients seem to miss the foot clinic, and getting ailments treated. She also said the closure of the large shelter at Peachtree and Pine Streets has seemed to spur men to adhere to the Central Night Shelter’s guidelines since there isn’t any alternative.