By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published June 13, 2019
COLLEGE PARK—The work hours at the Georgia International Convention Center stretch from sunrise to late night before its doors open and tens of thousands of believers stream in for the annual Eucharistic Congress of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The College Park complex will be a beehive of activity before the massive Eucharistic Congress procession Saturday, June 22, filled with colorful parish banners, dancers honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe and hundreds of devotees.
“We walk in on Wednesday morning and it’s a big, empty concrete box,” said Gary Seputis, sitting in his Lithia Springs conference room. An event production veteran with JJA Project Management, Seputis had just wrapped up an event with the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival.
JJA Project Management oversees all the lights, sound, video and event production needs for the Eucharistic Congress, now in its 24th year. The event draws an estimated 30,000 participants from across the Southeast.
Close to 100 workers have a hand in putting together the multicultural gathering of the Atlanta Catholic community. They install miles of cables, erect a stage more than half the size of a football field, run sound checks for eight bands and hoist overhead lighting and video equipment. The crews do the technical work required to pull off the event in the convention center and two nearby hotels. Afterward, days of work has to be broken down in mere hours.
The JJA crew members say the work, which begins on Wednesday and ends after midnight on Sunday, is a spiritual experience not encountered at its typical events.
Ignacio Rivera, 29, a social media/digital producer, said his congress work allows him to be part of the church and contribute to its mission. Many of the attendees are devout so it pleases him how his work can help bring people closer to God, he said. He said he was never an altar boy, so this weekend is a way he can be a part of the church’s work.
A history of event production
The event setup, since 2014, has been undertaken by JJA Project Management. The business also assists with the Christmas tree lighting and Macy’s Pink Pig train ride at Lenox Square Mall, produces fashion shows and the Independence Day fireworks at the Mall of Georgia. The Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Eucharistic Congress is the largest event it coordinates.
The Eucharistic Congress did not always require such technical know-how. In its earliest days, it took place at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta. As it attracted more of the faithful, it moved to the Atlanta Civic Center then to the Georgia International Convention Center. The event is sprawled over some 238,000 square feet, said Seputis.
Seputis has worked on the technical side of the Eucharistic Congress since 2005 in association with various companies. One of the changes he has seen is the waves of people that attend. He remembers empty rooms initially, but the conference needs have overtaken those areas.
In the main halls, some 10,000 chairs are set out by volunteers from Young Life of West Cobb. The Christian organization in turn gets a donation used for mission trips. The seats are nearly evenly split between the Hispanic and English tracks. Spotlights have to be focused on key areas of the stage, from the crucifix to nationally-known speakers. Seputis said a goal for the video and lighting crews is to ensure people in the far corners of the hall feel engaged with the speakers on the stage.
Event planners revamped the appearance of the main stage. The previous look consisted of three fake Gothic windows on a black backdrop. JJA General Manager Joe Andreska said the scenery appeared “starchy” without the warmth of churches he knew growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He called them an “unpainted gingerbread house.”
The goal is to create an appearance in the cavernous hall people associate with a grand cathedral. Event planners revived the stage, with fresh paint, faux finishes to the wood set pieces, adding golden features and other updates.
“It wasn’t a lot of money, it was a fresh feel,” Andreska said.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta owns the pieces. They are stored in a customized trailer to hold the cathedra chair, the ambo and the altar.
During the years, there is one untimely incident that now draws smiles from Seputis and Andreska. They were putting the final touches to install the oversized stage crucifix. Suddenly an arm of Jesus broke off. As the group huddled on how to repair the wood, the second arm suddenly became unattached. The group, along with the damaged crucifix, retreated to an office out of sight. A craftsman restored the artifact for the Eucharistic Congress at the 11th hour. The next year, a newer crucifix was added to the collection.
Assembling and breaking down
The layout begins Wednesday morning. Working with chalk, tape and paper, organizers mark the floor and walls to frame where the hardware goes, which is delivered the following day on trucks.
The first day’s work takes about 12 hours and the days get longer from there.
Thursday is dedicated to putting together the stage, laying out equipment and assembling the scenery on the stage. Meanwhile, the technical crews are getting the lights focused and the sound and video working. Event planners support the smaller room venues too, such as the stage and equipment for the children’s track location.
Friday is a half day to complete the checklists and support Starve Wars, the meal-packing effort for impoverished countries.
“We have half a day before people start showing up,” said Andreska.
By Friday, 5:30 p.m., the work must be completed when doors open. Then it is time to bring the speakers, the music and prayers together for the next 24 hours in front of tens of thousands.
Once the crowds depart Saturday afternoon after the closing Mass, the workers do it all over again—but in reverse.
“Three days to go in, eight hours to go out,” said Seputis, production and technical director.
The reviewing, debriefing and renewing contracts will start for the 2020 event almost immediately.
Said Seputis, “The planning starts during the closing Mass when the dates are announced.”
A schedule of Congress events is available here.