By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 27, 2022 | En Español
FOREST PARK—As the mariachi band played under a big white tent, a young girl in a spotted dress twirled to the music. Quickly joining her on the dance floor, circling with his own flair was Padre Jacques, as he is affectionately known.
The joy of the music and celebration of the people on this warm April night continued the spirit of the Mass beforehand. The administrator of San Felipe de Jesús Mission and the congregation clapped to the beat of the guitars and the choir. A long line of altar servers held yellow carnations to leave before the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Mass was a farewell gift between the congregation and the departing priest, Father Jacques E. Fabre, CS. A fiesta afterward took over the parking lot. Volunteers ran plates heavy with tortillas, chicken, beans and rice to the tables of waiting community members.
It was a chance to say goodbye for this predominately Mexican congregation as the priest took on his next ministry.
He was appointed by Pope Francis to be the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston Feb. 22 and was ordained on May 13, sharing words with his former Georgia parishioners.
“I know that you still have your eyes, as mine, full of tears from the separation. However, what we have learned and achieved together will always remain in us,” said Bishop Fabre during his ordination homily, talking in a special way to the more than 1,000 members of the congregation who traveled to South Carolina.
Many believers had driven more than three hours from the Forest Park mission to witness the historic event.
“The impact of the evangelization will stay forever,” he told them. “The vibrant liturgies will leave permanent scars in our spirit.”
Being first comes with responsibilities
Bishop Fabre, 66, is a native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He immigrated to New York City as a teenager and completed high school. He thought of studying engineering. The bishop is one of six children of a carpenter father and a mom who worked in retail and later earned a college degree.
Raised as a Brooklyn Boy Scout, he said he still leans on the lessons learned in the troop of working together, having a common project and respecting others.
He credits his vocation to scouting. He learned about religious life by reading about it in a scouting magazine, he said. In 1982, he joined the Missionaries of St. Charles, a religious order commonly known as the Scalabrinian Fathers formed to serve immigrants.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, he served as the superior of Scalabrinian priests and as administrator of San Felipe de Jesús Mission for 13 years.
This new role will make Bishop Fabre the only living Haitian American prelate in the country and the first Black bishop in the state-wide diocese of South Carolina.
“I think it’s an honor, but it’s a big responsibility because when you’re first you have to make a way for others. And what it means to me is everything is possible,” he said. “I respect the church in general, especially the American church, for taking the risk.”
Bishop Fabre is one of five priests who served in the Atlanta Archdiocese who have been named bishops since 2009. They are Bishop Luis R. Zarama, of Raleigh, North Carolina; Bishop David P. Talley, of Memphis, Tennessee; Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, of Atlanta; and Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv.
Bishop Fabre said it is a positive sign the Catholic community is forming religious leaders of the future.
When asked about the Atlanta archdiocese, the new bishop said that its future unity as a community will require believers to embrace diversity.
“It’s a growing archdiocese. It’s becoming Hispanic in terms of numbers. Continue to love one another,” he said.
Shepherd for many
In addition to the Hispanic mission, Bishop Fabre was a spiritual leader to Haitian Catholics in Atlanta. They celebrate a weekly Mass in Decatur. Charter buses went to Charleston filled with Haitian Catholics wanting to witness the ordination of their beloved priest.
At a farewell Mass at Sts. Peter and Paul Church, Kevin Borgella, 29, said, “The people are elated to see one of our own to be recognized for their faith and their good works they have done.”
The priest always cared about community members, he said.
“He would check in and shepherd us. We understand he has work to do so we are supporting him in his mission but his absence will be felt,” said Borgella.
Danielle Pierre-Louis, a 17-year member of the community, said Bishop Fabre’s encouragement kept the community together through struggles.
Haiti continues to suffer so it is a welcome relief to see one of her countrymen given such a responsibility as a bishop, she said.
Drawing in new people
The Forest Park mission has thrived in the 13 years Bishop Fabre served as spiritual leader, growing to nearly an estimated 7,000 families, with nearly 1,000 children in religious education.
The mission started in the early 1990s in a small apartment in the Grant Park neighborhood and moved in a decade to Forest Park in the flight path of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. During his time, the too-small church became the parish center after the community raised more than $1 million to construct a larger Spanish Colonial Mission-style church. Much of the money was raised by selling tacos and other Mexican food.
At the April Mass for the departing priest, it was standing room only with folding chairs in the aisle and people outside. The large crowd moved from the sanctuary to the parking lot for the party.
Jose L. Ramirez, 43, has worshipped at the mission for a dozen years. He is now a parish council leader. In Ramirez’s view, the bishop’s strength is how he identifies a vision and then enlists everyone to accomplish it.
“He wants us to use our God-given talents to better the community, Ramirez said. “99 percent, everybody helps him. He is a person with a big heart. He helps God,” he said.
Carla Villalobos, 21, said she cried at the news of the bishop’s departure. She serves as the parish administrative assistant.
One of the skills she witnessed of the priest is drawing people into community life.
“He searches for new people, who don’t use their gifts as much as they should and he draws it out of them.”