By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published July 7, 2022
ALPHARETTA—Parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Church celebrated the community’s 50th anniversary on Pentecost weekend.
On June 4, the 17-acre church campus was filled with anniversary balloons, games and face painting stations. A donut-eating contest and popsicles were popular among teens and adults.
Food trucks and a live concert followed an outdoor bilingual Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., along with former pastors of the Alpharetta parish.
“Pentecost takes place 50 days after Easter,” said the archbishop. “And by God’s providence, we celebrate 50 years of a parish animated by the Holy Spirit.”
In his homily, Archbishop Hartmayer noted the growth of St. Thomas Aquinas since its early years.
“You have grown and blossomed to become one of the most vibrant and culturally diverse parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” said Archbishop Hartmayer. “You come from many countries with your own customs and traditions, yet united in the Catholic faith that you profess, and celebrate, and live and pray. This is unity in diversity.”
St. Thomas Aquinas was established in 1959 as a mission of the Cathedral of Christ the King and was attended by 10 families. The mission transferred to St. Jude the Apostle Church in Sandy Springs in 1964.
In early 1972, the 17-acre property on Rucker Road was purchased as a new home for the mission. The Alpharetta mission was elevated to a parish on June 1, 1972, by Archbishop Thomas Donnellan and an all-purpose building was completed nine months later. By this time, the church served more than 200 families.
Terry and Bob Zobel have been members of St. Thomas Aquinas Church since 1970 when they joined the mission. Terry recalls having Mass in various locations in the early years, such as the Roswell Community Center and a local bank.
“It taught me that church was not a building,” said Terry. “The church was people.”
The Zobels began serving the parish with the coffee and donut ministry and later taught sixth grade religious education. Terry also worked at the parish as the adult faith formation coordinator for 40 years and has been involved in small faith communities. They have two adult children.
“We went to several different parishes, and we came here and we felt at home,” said Terry.
The Zobels met Deacon Bill and Franna Keeling when they came to St. Thomas Aquinas Church before it was elevated to a parish in 1972. The Keelings remember dancing Friday nights away in the all-purpose building before going to church on Saturday or Sunday.
“We had a visiting priest that would come, but not one that was assigned to this parish,” said Deacon Keeling. “So, it took all of us if you wanted to do anything.”
The Keelings raised all seven of their children at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and taught teen ministry over the years. Franna taught religious education classes and started the parish’s RCIA program. Along with fellow parishioner Mary Smith, Franna started Godspell, which brought together teens from various schools to perform a modern-day play about Jesus based on the Gospel of Matthew.
“We were a welcoming, really close community,” said Franna.
‘History of welcome’
Msgr. Daniel Stack has been pastor of the Alpharetta parish for eight years and will retire in July after serving for 40 years as a priest. For him, what makes St. Thomas Aquinas special is its “long, strong history of welcome.”
The pastor greatly appreciates his staff, who are “just wonderful.” As he prepares to leave St. Thomas Aquinas Church, he hopes it will continue to welcome those from other countries into the community and embrace Father Fernando Molina-Restrepo as the new pastor.
“Fernando is the luckiest priest in Atlanta,” said Msgr. Stack. “[St.] Thomas Aquinas is really lucky to be getting him.”
A sign sits outside of the church doors in the narthex, with “welcome” written in 18 languages. For Terry Zobel, this is an example of the parish’s character.
“I think the primary gift of this parish is its openness to all people,” she said.
From serving 10 families when it began in 1959, St. Thomas Aquinas Church is now the home parish for more than 2,200 registered families from more than 35 countries.
“For a parish in Alpharetta, just in this part of the world, we have a pretty diverse congregation,” said Msgr. Stack.
Looking to the next 50 years, Franna hopes the parish comes together and embraces the fellowship it shared as it continues to grow in numbers. Deacon Keeling hopes the parish will expand on its property, building an all-purpose center for recreational sports and events for youth and adults.
“I hope we continue to build on the really firm roots that we experienced,” said Terry. “The roots of welcoming, hospitality, ongoing faith formation [and] small faith communities.”