By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 27, 2022
SANDY SPRINGS—The Brazilian Catholic community’s 25th anniversary celebration culminated Oct. 12 with a show of faith featuring the patron of the South American country.
The event brought members of the close-knit immigrant group to an energetic worship. Friends and family celebrated their Brazilian heritage at St. Jude the Apostle Church in Sandy Springs.
The quarter-of-a-century milestone is rooted in immigrant life as their shared Catholic faith cemented together people living in an unfamiliar place and learning a new language.
The enrobed statue of Our Lady of Aparecida was carried into the church during the anniversary Mass and put in a place of honor as believers waved blue and white swatches of paper. Three men dressed as fishermen led the statue, carrying nets and a small boat, recalling the 1717 discovery of a clay statue during a fishing trip. In Brazil, this image of the Black Virgin Mary is venerated as patron of the nation.
Brazilian immigrants in the Atlanta Archdiocese have found the ministry to be a lifeline. They have learned how to navigate their new home’s customs from fellow Brazilians while sharing cultural touchstones and offering emotional support to each other.
In Georgia, about 16,500 residents were born in Brazil, with 87 percent living in the Atlanta metro area, according to US Census Bureau American Community Survey. In the Atlanta Archdiocese, the ministry counts some 400 church-going members, living between Marietta, Sandy Springs and Alpharetta.
The ministry is designed to meet a critical need. Brazil has the world’s largest Catholic population, with about six out of 10 identifying as Catholic. However, membership there is declining as people turn to Protestant churches.
A second home
Glauciane Mendonca, 51, remembered the early days in the late 1990s when she and her husband, with their nine-month-old son, found strangers she now sees as family in the Brazilian community. She holds the people she met close to her heart. They have been a crucial part of their lives ever since.
“It’s my second home. I feel so happy in the community. I made special friends, very special friends,” said Mendonca, who now has four grown children and cleans houses. She wore a T-shirt with the printed image of Our Lady of Aparecida, along with the image as jewelry around her neck for the anniversary celebration.
Like Mendonca, Rosana Szvarca felt the draw of the caring people.
“It is a blessing to see God taking care of us,” she said.
Szvarca is a staff member of the parish, serving as a liaison with Brazilians. The gathering of faithful people has been an “instrument of God to grow in our faith,” she said.
Her husband, Gilberto, 57, said the group is a reminder about what is important in life. The family arrived in metro Atlanta in 2008 after researching the community before moving from Florida. When Szvarca, who works in the telecommunications business, had heart surgery, it was the community that circled them with love, prayer, food and support.
“They go (through) the ups and downs with you. The community takes that part of your life,” he said.
The first informal gathering of Brazilian Catholics was at the Ignatius House Jesuit Retreat Center. It began in an area restaurant in October 1997 when Jesuit Father Jack Vessels befriended a Brazilian server. Mass was celebrated in Portuguese at the retreat center. It was two years later when Father Pedro Poloche added a monthly Mass at St. Jude Church. Nine priests followed to build up the community.
St. Jude Church has been its long-time home, although Holy Family Church has also hosted ministry offerings through the years. In 2014, a former garage on the St. Jude parish campus was converted into a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Aparecida.
At the Mass, worshippers gathered with Atlanta Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III and the celebrant Bishop Francesco Biasin, retired bishop of the Diocese of Barra do Piraí-Volta Redonda in Brazil. Four other priests attended, including Father Poloche and a representative of the Atlanta Jesuit community.
In Bishop Biasin’s homily, he talked with the congregation about how they can become a new community, following the way of the Blessed Mother, hearing God in prayer, serving others and celebrating, drawing on how she met her cousin Elizabeth, recognizing God acting in the world. The homily was translated by Father Vanderley Oliveira.
Father Oliveira, 52, started as the community’s chaplain a year ago. He came from a parish in the state of Rio de Janeiro. As a parochial vicar at St. Jude Church, he is also responsible for the Hispanic community.
This October feast is intimately tied to the identity of Brazilians, he said.
“All communities around the world celebrate the day. People are devoted to Our Lady of Aparecida. People come to the church for the occasion,” he said.
At the statue’s shrine in Brazil, some 150,000 people will spend time praying and venerating the statue, he said. The celebration in Atlanta began days earlier when the community started nine days of prayer seeking the Virgin Mary’s intercession. Also, young and old helped with the coronation of the statue, leaving roses and rose petals as a sign of love with youngsters dressed as angels.
“She is a mother. A mother loves all her children,” the priest said about the Brazilian patron. Over the centuries, her message continues to be relevant as people are inspired to build the kingdom of her son Jesus, he said.
“We are a joyful people. Our people are a faithful people,” he said. As immigrants, they share a common experience of striving to improve the lives of their families while adjusting to a new country, he said.
Eddie Galvao, 54, works in construction and lives in Cumming, a 25-mile drive to the church. Still, he makes a point to attend events after his 22 years here. The anniversary milestone means the Brazilians need to take on responsibility for outreach to fellow natives, he said.
“From now on, it’s on us to grow the community. We still are keeping our culture right here. It’s a little bit of Brazil in the United States,” he said.