By ALLISON MAWN, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 22, 2023
ATHENS—St. Joseph Church, the first Catholic church in Athens, celebrated its 150th anniversary on Sunday, Sept. 17, with Mass and a reception at its Epps Bridge Parkway location.
Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM Conv., celebrated Mass for the occasion. His homily emphasized the grace of community while marking the historic anniversary.
“It’s the people who make the church,” Hartmayer said. “It’s the people who make the parish welcoming.”
Hartmayer also focused on the Scripture readings’ theme of forgiveness and humility and the necessity of reconciliation and the Eucharist, asking: “If we’re not coming here for the Eucharist, what are we coming here for?”
“This is a great moment to have the archbishop here with us because we just recently received the approval to begin building the church, which we’ve been waiting for a very, very long time,” Father Paul Moreau, St. Joseph pastor, said. “And it’s nice that it coincided with our 150th anniversary of the foundation in the parish.”
The parish held a groundbreaking ceremony in 2022 for their new church. Though they have owned the Epps Bridge Parkway property since 2007, fundraising and other delays mean that construction for the new church has not begun yet. Mass is currently held in a multi-purpose building on the campus.
“We’re taking our time, not to aggravate you, but to ensure that we are being good stewards with all that you have contributed to make this reality happen,” Archbishop Hartmayer said about the new building. “I assure you, we’re on the verge.”
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz attended the celebration. Girtz also issued an official proclamation congratulating the parish on its milestone anniversary.
“Thinking about this parish in particular, it’s one that, in keeping with the Catholic tradition, welcomes people from all over the planet on an annual basis as people move here to learn or to teach, or to work in the medical community or the research community,” Girtz said. “I’m grateful for their presence in the community.”
Following Mass, parishioners were invited to view a collection of historic documents, news clippings and images from throughout St. Joseph’s history. Also on display were a cornerstone from the Prince Avenue building, a raffle ticket from the parish’s first-ever fundraising event and other historic items. On Friday evening, the parish community enjoyed a fish fry, bingo, pumpkin decorating and other children’s activities ahead of the anniversary Mass.
St. Joseph began as a missionary parish that served 23 counties, where visiting priests held Mass monthly. The parish was founded in 1873 after 10 Catholic families approached the Bishop of Savannah, Bishop William Gross. The land was purchased from the Thomas R.R. Cobb estate.
In 1913, the parish moved to its former location on Prince Avenue in downtown Athens, where it stayed, with various renovations, until 2005.
Father Walter Donovan founded the parish school, which currently serves students in pre-k through 8th grade, in 1949.
In 2007, St. Joseph purchased the property on Epps Bridge Parkway. The move was due to a need for expansion because of the land-locked nature of the Prince Avenue site. A new school and multipurpose building opened in 2012, but church services did not begin there until 2015, when the Prince Avenue location was sold.
The new building will keep the “Classic City style,” according to Jane Sullivan, parish communications director of St. Joseph. The parish hopes to add a bell tower in a second phase of construction. The new church will include 18 German stained glass windows, preserved from the Prince Avenue location.
Allison Mawn is a junior at The University of Georgia and is assistant news editor at the independent student newspaper, The Red & Black.