Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 7, 1999
Parish Profile -- Saint John Neumann
BY BETTY SCHOENBAECHLER
Special To The Bulletin
LILBURN--Located just off a winding road in southeast Gwinnett County, St. John Neumann Church (SJN) is partially hidden behind hardwoods and evergreens. Its rustic cedar trim and natural granite walls give the building a welcoming appearance and the strong sense of the Holy Spirit within makes parishioners and visitors alike feel at home.
Even though the church membership is huge--3,120 families with an estimated 12,000 people--parishioners do make lasting friendships and feel very much a part of the church community.
This is a church with many communities within communities, said Father James Fennessy, the pastor. The various ministries and organizations available here give people the opportunity to serve and to become an integral part of the parish. Because of these ministries, and hopefully through the small groups forming because of RENEW 2000, the church becomes smaller--not in numbers, but in the sense that this is a loving and supportive community.
The parish began when a group of 200 met at Lilburn City Hall in August 1977 and unanimously selected the churchs name after a new saint, the former bishop of Philadelphia. Weekend Masses were held at Parkview High School and holy day Masses were celebrated at nearby Lutheran and Presbyterian churches.
Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan dedicated the church and hall on Dec. 16, 1979. Father Paul Reynolds, then pastor, borrowed the actual chalice used by St. John Neumann in his celebration of the Eucharist more than 125 years before.
The parish had already met growth projections estimated for 1990. As Gwinnett County grew, so did St. John Neumann, and at one point the parish had nearly 4,000 families. In 1992 the parish sponsored a mission in Lawrenceville, St. Marguerite DYouville, which just dedicated its own church building. In 1994 another mission was formed, St. Stephen the Martyr.
Despite the missions, SJN has remained a very large parish. Currently SJN has nine Masses each weekend and supports two at St. Stephens. At 9 and 10:30 a.m., there are two services going on simultaneously. Each Mass is unique and has regulars who attend.
At the heart of the parish are more than 40 different ministries and organizations in which a parishioner can serve. Each falls under one of four commissions: Parish Life, Spiritual Life, Education and Human Concerns. Representatives from each commission are elected to serve on the parish council, which meets quarterly or as needed.
Council President Jerry Monda said that being involved in one or more ministries is the key to finding a community. For me personally, I have always felt I belonged here. When we moved here, the church still met at Parkview High School. From the first day, the parishioners we met were very warm, loving and open to us.
Father Fennessy became pastor in 1991. He and parochial vicars, Father Michael Campbell, Father Craig David and Father Patrick Donaghey, said they have felt loved and supported by parishioners.
The pastor said many people seek a sense of community through church ministries because it is a way to put their faith to work.
The reason we have these ministries is we have people willing to serve and they serve because of their faith in Christ, the pastor said. At St. John Neumann and throughout the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we have a lot of young families who have moved here because of work, he added. Many of their extended families live hundreds of miles away and one of the ways they can be family to one another is by forming groups and becoming involved in ministries. These faith families that are formed dont necessarily replace their actual families, but they do replace some of the functions of their families.
From the Moms Circle to the Financial Committee and from the Rosary Makers to AIDS ministry, there are groups that fit just about every niche. One that touches parishioners on a weekly basis is music.
The real neat thing about this church is there is a place for almost everybody in terms of music, said music director Alan Brown, who described how some of the musicians serving the church like contemporary music and others favor the more traditional hymns. But they all share a common bond of a deep spirituality. Every parishioner can expect one hundred percent out of the musicians who lead them in their prayer experience each week, Brown said. They are not just singing, they are leading actual prayer.
The Donnellan Hall Singers, led by Mike Webb, handle all the music that takes place in the hall located in the SJN regional school. The church has a new 9 a.m. ensemble led by Mary Lou Schawner that plays contemporary Christian hymns. The Life Teen Singers select contemporary Christian music that appeals to teenagers, said Brown. The group is led by Mary Marder. The Hispanic Choir, led by Miriam Hobbs, blends traditional Mexican songs with music of the Caribbean for a lively worship service.
Brown leads the church choir, which will be going to Rome in February. The church also has two childrens choirs, a primary choir for kindergarten through second grade and one for grades three through six. Susan McQuade coordinates the childrens ministry.
Religious education at SJN is a family-building, community-wide effort, said director Sharon Lynn Osborne. This year the church has 900 children enrolled in classes for preschoolers through eighth grade. The sacramental preparation classes are scripturally based and involve parents as well as children. Confirmation candidates follow the Christian initiation model which includes retreats, Scripture study and service.
We encourage the parents not to rely on class attendance for their childrens religious education, but to bring them to Mass on Sunday and to live out their faith on a daily basis, Osborne said.
RENEW 2000 is the main focus for adult education. More than 800 parishioners are enrolled, including 125 teenagers and 60 members of the Hispanic community. Susan Schaefer, adult education coordinator, said there are 58 groups in the first six-week session. She expects more to sign up for Season II which begins Feb. 14.
SJN youth minister Amy Williams said the teenagers are very enthusiastic about RENEW and the Life Teen program.
I love these teens. They are very strong in their faith walk. I was nowhere near where they are spiritually when I was their age. Most of the time I feel like Im the one being ministered to, she said.
The teens participate as lectors, ushers, eucharistic ministers and through the music ministry. High school students meet on Sunday nights for RENEW. On Wednesdays they meet for Pizza and Prayer. On the first Wednesday of the month, about 50 pray the rosary with members of the pro-life community. On other Wednesdays, the group sings praise and worship music and one of the volunteers, Barbara Suwak, leads a discussion about the next Sundays readings.
The Hispanic ministry is more than a community within St. John Neumann. This thriving ministry has grown from a monthly Mass to a complete, Hispanic church within the parish. Father Sergio Calle-Perez, based out of St. Marguerite DYouville, celebrates Sunday Mass in Spanish at SJN at 1:30 p.m. Between 400 and 450 attend regularly.
The ministry started at the request of Sister Pilar Dalmau, who was in charge of the Hispanic Apostolate in the archdiocese more than 10 years ago. Deacon Rafael Cintron and his wife, Nilsa, were visiting a cancer patient and noticed many Hispanics living in the area. They began teaching CCD classes in homes and inviting people to the monthly Hispanic Mass.
Seven years ago the church began offering weekly Masses in Spanish, with Mrs. Cintron teaching CCD each Sunday at noon. Now between 150 and 180 Spanish-speaking students attend nine religious education classes taught by 18 dedicated volunteers. There are 13 ministries within the Hispanic community, with 60 different leaders. The families here are absolutely outstanding and very hard working, said Deacon Cintron. There were a lot of Hispanic people who were not attending church, but because of the home visits by volunteers and friends telling friends about Mass, the ministry has grown.
Father Calle-Perez has added youth and young adult groups, a prayer group and a radio program for Radio MEX, AM 610, that airs four days a week.
The support from the parishioners, staff and clergy at SJN has been significant, Deacon Cintron said. We have worked very closely with the church staff and whatever we need is provided.
The parish has its own newspaper, The Neumann News, which has been published for 13 years, edited by Atlanta Journal/Constitution business reporter Andy Miller. The paper provides news from parish organizations, profiles and reports, using a staff of volunteer writers, editors, designers and photographers.
Joanne Walding, administrative support, has just redesigned the parishs web page, which provides information about church activities, links to other Catholic sites and a puzzle page for children. The entire church bulletin is on the site. It can be reached at: www.sjnlilburn.org.
Another active organization is the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which helps the poor in the Lilburn area. We get a wide range of calls for help, said Brian Lynch, president. We have three voice mail boxes at the church and when someone calls for assistance, we usually respond within 24 to 48 hours. The type of help ranges from paying a $20 water bill to finding psychological help or filling a prescription for an elderly person.
About 20 SJN parishioners volunteer to do home visits. They always travel in pairs and often have to make some tough judgment calls. St. Vincent de Paul has 150 families who assist with managing the Thrift Store on Highway 29 and who help coordinate the Thanksgiving and Christmas programs. Our parish is unbelievably generous, Lynch said. During the last fiscal year, we helped 115 families with their special needs and provided food and aid for 150 families at both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Although not actually affiliated, SJN shares some facilities with St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School. The church uses some classrooms for religious education classes and the Donnellan Hall for Sunday Mass. The school uses the church for school liturgies and programs. Many SJNRCS students are members of the parish, but since it is a regional school, students come from many parishes in Gwinnett and DeKalb counties.
The size of the parish is SJNs biggest drawback. The church only seats approximately 525 people, so during Christmas and Easter there are three standing room only services happening simultaneously. Despite the numbers, SJN manages to keep a strong sense of community because of the commitment of parishioners and clergy. Parish Council President Mondas feelings about the church are shared by others. Theres something very special about being at Mass here at St. John Neumann. Now that Im retired, we do a lot of traveling and have been to Masses all over the world. When we first moved here, we could have lived anywhere in Atlanta, but God put us right here. Now, I wouldnt live anywhere else. This parish is home.
AT THE FOOT OF
THE CROSS -- Father Patrick Donaghey, parochial vicar at St. Stephen the Martyr
Mission, celebrates the Life Teen Mass at St. John Neumann Church.
DOUBLE HITTER -- On the same Sunday, Deacon Rafael Cintron proclaims the Gospel in English at the 12 noon Mass and in Spanish at the 1:30 p.m. Spanish Mass. This native of Puerto Rico has been a deacon since 1989.
MORNING FELLOWSHIP -- Nancy Fadeley, left, and Carolyn Hamilton chat with Father Craig David, parochial vicar, after the 9 a.m. Mass.