On Saturday, May 21 the parish community of St. Anthony of Padua in Ray City, Georgia, saw a long-held dream come true when Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah dedicated its new church building.
An overflow crowd of more than 400 people attended the dedication Mass, which was the joyful culmination of a years-long process that the parish's pastor, Father Fredy Angel described as a “rollercoaster” ride.
That rollercoaster ride included difficult and painful times such as the closing of three beloved but no longer sustainable church locations: first St. Mary in Nashville, then St. Mary Margaret in Adel and last year Queen of Peace in Lakeland.
But Father Angel said, “We enjoy more the beautiful moments” of celebration that over the past three years have united and strengthened the bonds and friendships within the diverse and previously geographically dispersed parish. These “beautiful moments” and experiences of growing faith and community also helped fuel the very ambitious and challenging construction project of the new church that was finally dedicated on Saturday.
Father Angel gave thanks to God “for leading us on this journey, for if it was not His will, it would not have happened.” He added an “enormous, immeasurable thank-you to this community for opening your hearts and minds to God's will. I know it was a difficult decision to close down your lifelong parishes, but today we can be proud and devoted South Georgia Catholics.”
The multicultural faith community that makes up St. Anthony of Padua Parish includes the historic African American Catholic community of the former Queen of Peace Parish in Lakeland, a large and growing population of Latino Catholics, as well as white Catholics and several Asian American Catholic families.
Saturday’s dedication began with the parishioners gathering outside the church. After the presentation of the new church to Bishop Hartmayer, he passed its key on to Father Angel for the official opening of the church doors.
After Bishop Hartmayer and Bishop Emeritus J. Kevin Boland led the procession of the parishioners into the new church, the bilingual dedication Mass included a blessing of the congregation and the building with holy water; the placing of a first-class relic, a small bone fragment of St. Anthony of Padua, into the altar; and the anointing of the altar and walls with chrism.
During the anointing Bishop Hartmayer poured a cruet of chrism oil onto the top of the new altar, and he and Bishop Boland then used their hands to polish it into the entire surface.
Parishioner and local artist Roger Johnson had carved the altar top out of dark sinker cypress wood he had pulled from a swamp near his Lakeland house. This wood, he explained, was submerged for more than 100 years and may be more than a thousand years old. Its cycle from growing in the swamps, being submerged and then becoming the altar top, he said, represents Christ. Like him, “it was living and then it was left for dead and then resurrected into a higher form.”
Johnson’s stunning altar is the visual centerpiece of the new church. It features two large kneeling angels he carved out of bald cypress that represent reverence and prayer and whose wings hold up the altar top.
Bishop Hartmayer started his homily by saying, “I feel like I'm having a wonderful dream, and I hope I never wake up.”
He credited the “missionary zeal of many priests and religious men and women, ... together with the generosity of the Catholic Extension Society, that made the dreams of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church a reality.” Most of all he acknowledged “the deep faith and commitment of the past and present parishioners of the three mission communities. Your generosity has made this possible.... I have such admiration for you. You continue to inspire me.”
Bishop Hartmayer recounted the words of Bishop Boland, who had called the growth and vibrancy of faith evident in the parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua a “miracle in the South.” “It is all an act of faith,” he added.
Serving the Catholic community of the three South Georgia counties of Cook, Berrien, and Lanier, the new church is substantially larger than its three predecessor churches and its new pews can seat 300. For the first time now, the parish will also have plenty of space for its catechism classes, youth group, social functions and other events.
And the new parish complex just west of Ray City will soon also include two state-of-the-art soccer fields, where the parish hopes to organize soccer tournaments beginning this summer.
According to Bishop Hartmayer, many things had come together to help build the new church. “Generosity and the spirituality of stewardship are contagious,” the bishop said.
He particularly highlighted several key contributions, including one parish family's donation of the land for the church, a group of volunteers under the leadership of another parishioner working almost every weekend for almost a year to build the walls and lay the bricks for the church, the donation of the pews by another parish family, the landscaping and irrigation services donated by yet another, and Johnson’s carving of the altar and a unique tabernacle.
They also included taco sales, dinner dances, special occasions and parish raffles and all of the parishioners’ countless contributions of time, talent and treasure.
The bishop added, “Something else was happening which showed me that this was God's will: The Catholic Extension Society was responsive to our request for help. They became very interested in this special community that was supporting this incredible dream.” And last November, “Father Fredy was awarded Catholic Extension's prestigious Lumen Christi Award that shed the light of Christ on this project.”
Recalling the poor conditions of the parish's previous three church locations, Bishop Hartmayer said, “No more leaking roofs, bad air conditioning, not enough seating, no place to teach the children. You have some sacred space now.”
He then added, “This faith community has built a house where God will dwell.”
During his remarks at the end of Mass, Father Angel was overtaken with emotion and for a minute was unable to continue. The congregation responded with a long standing ovation for their beloved pastor.
Struggling for words, he said, “Thank you, thank you—that is the only word coming to me now.”
Later he added, “The easy part is done, and that was building the church. Now is coming the challenge, and that is to keep it going. We built already the structure, now we need to build the soul, [and that is] where I need the commitment of each one of you.”
It was not enough to just admire the beauty of the new church, he said, but now “we must be a testimony of life as good Catholics here in South Georgia. We have to reflect now more than ever the beauty of this place, not just showing the place but showing ourselves to be that testimony of life, that testimony of Christ—being Christ for others and bringing them to Christ.
“I need your help with that,” Father Angel continued. “That is really what it means for us to have a church. To be a community is to reflect God out there in the world.” That sentence was met with an “Amen” from the congregation.
Father Angel concluded, “Let us give thanks to God now for this church.”