Local News Archive
Print Issue: November 27, 1997
Growing Parish Flourishes In Mountains
BY ERIKA ANDERSON
BLAIRSVILLE--Nestled in the heart of the North Georgia mountains, among the bright gold and red trees of autumn, lies St. Francis of Assisi Church, a parish that has experienced significant growth in the 31 years since it was planted.
Founded by the Glenmary Home Missioners, the community of St. Francis of Assisi celebrated its first Mass at a Blairsville manufacturing company on June 12, 1966. About 20 people attended.
After some growth in the Catholic population of Towns and Union counties, a permanent place to worship for the members of St. Francis was established in March 1977.
The parish outgrew this all-purpose building as well, and St. Francis of Assisi's first sanctuary, located at the foot of Gum Log Mountain, was dedicated on May 7, 1996, 30 years after that first Mass was celebrated.
The handsome, yet simple building, with its neo-Gothic windows facing the mountains, is a testimony to the love of its members.
Much of the artwork, including a Franciscan San Damiano crucifix and a cherry wood statue of St. Francis of Assisi, was created by parishioners. The altar cloths and curtain swags were also made by parishioners.
Of the 290 families currently attending St. Francis of Assisi, a third of them are retired, while a sixth of them are seasonal, attending St. Francis while staying in Blairsville and surrounding areas during the summer months.
Barbara Gosselin began attending St. Francis of Assisi during the summer of 1966. She and her husband, who died last year, made the permanent move to Blairsville from Florida in 1990, because they just liked Blairsville better, Gosselin said.
Gosselin, who sings in the choir and assists with the Outreach ministry program, said that the growth of the church has not changed the people of St. Francis.
"It's still the same loving family it's always been, but it has really grown in outreach," Gosselin said.
Each Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, Outreach volunteers give out canned and boxed food baskets to needy people from surrounding areas, who hear about St. Francis from county Family Services or by word of mouth. This Thanksgiving, they gave out 45 food baskets.
Father Tim Gadziala became the pastor at St. Francis of Assisi after leaving Holy Family Church in Marietta, where he was a parochial vicar. He is the third pastor at St. Francis of Assisi since the archdiocese assumed pastoral care of the parish from the Glenmary order in 1992.
After working in a large parish like Holy Family, where it is often difficult to meet all of the parishioners, Father Gadziala said he is enjoying the size of the community at St. Francis.
"I'm really getting to know everyone. I know who comes to Mass and who doesn't," Father Gadziala said.
He also said that St. Francis is a parish going through a "spiritual renewal." Many of the ministries and programs are just beginning.
"I have just started an RCIA program, with about seven or eight people attending, and I am in the process of revitalizing the youth program," Father Gadziala said.
Father Gadziala also hosts a holy hour on Monday evenings, with about 50 to 70 parishioners attending. They are near the end of a six-week program, in which Father Gadziala has been teaching on the encyclicals of Pope John Paul II.
In addition to St. Francis of Assisi, Father Gadziala also oversees St. Paul the Apostle Church in Cleveland, established originally by Glenmary. This means a trip over Blood Mountain several days a week.
"The legend of Blood Mountain is that it was the divider between the Cheek and Cherokee Indians before the white man came. It can be a struggle, because it is the second highest peak in Georgia, and I have to travel over it three days a week," Father Gadziala said.
St. Paul is about two years older than St. Francis, but it has 180 families attending. It is also a growing church, much like St. Francis of Assisi.
Sister Rosemary Wickham, OSF, has been at St. Francis since 1987. She is the director of religious education, works with the Outreach program and is in charge of the ministry to the sick.
Sister Wickham has also been teaching Bible classes for 10 years. She said that the parishioners of St. Francis are very faithful Catholics.
"I have been teaching those Bible classes for 10 years and I am still getting a crowd of 20 or 25 people each time," Sister Wickham said. "These are people who have been very faithful Catholics, but are still eager to grow and learn, and they are eager to do whatever they can to help the church grow also."
Father Gadziala agrees with Sister Wickham that it is the people of St. Francis who make it so unique.
"We have a very generous parish. So many people have given their time, treasure and talent to this church," Father Gadziala said. "It is also a parish that is very diverse in its cultural background. We have people from all over."
In August 1994, an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled "Retirees Seek The Good Life Far From Florida" ranked Blairsville as the eighth best place to retire in America. Among the retirees, Gosselin said that it is inspiring to see the families and young children of St. Francis of Assisi.
"The children are really the future of the church. It is so wonderful to see them here," Gosselin said.
Father Gadziala said that the family orientation of the parish is one of the aspects of the church that he enjoys the most.
"It's amazing how in its growth St. Francis has maintained its sense of family," Father Gadziala said.
Due to all the growth that St. Francis of Assisi has gone through, plans are being made to add classrooms and office space.
"We are still paying off a small debt, which is going well," Father Gadziala said. "We also need some repaving and additional classrooms and office space."
Father Gadziala and Sister Wickham are also excited about the RENEW 2000 program in which St. Francis of Assisi will be participating. RENEW 2000 is a program that provides spiritual preparation leading up to the Great Jubilee Year and is intended to develop small faith communities that will endure.
Although St. Francis of Assisi continues to grow in size and population, Gosselin is convinced that the parishioners will not lose their sense of closeness.
"We are just a big loving family," Gosselin said. "Everyone is here for everyone else and we really rally around someone who is in trouble. That's the way it's always been."