Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 3, 2002
Mission Perseveres While Search For Church Site Continues
By Priscilla Greeat, Staff Writer
GRANT PARKJust as Hispanic Catholics of the San Felipe de Jesús Mission in Grant Park reenacted Mary and Josephs search for an inn over nine days before Christmas, so too have they been searching for their own shelter over nine years to worship the Lord.
The church, which is a mission of Sacred Heart Church downtown, has grown 200 percent in the last two years. Since 1992, the mission has held services at 402 McDonough Blvd., in a rented one-story, 2,700-square-foot brick building with five rooms and a chapel, while looking for a larger facility. In 1999 weekend Masses were moved outside due to a lack of space.
The new year may bring about a long-needed change for the congregation. The archdiocese hopes to buy 2.5 acres about 100 yards away from the mission and is currently holding negotiations with the developer and neighborhood planning units. Archdiocesan officials have already met with the nearby Concerned Neighbors of Chosewood Park and with Neighborhood Planning Unit Y to discuss questions and concerns, said George Barrie, president of Catholic Construction Services.
In the meantime, for each of three Masses celebrated every Sunday at San Felipe, 300-400 Latinos continue to worship outside, beneath an open-air shelter parishioners built themselves. In rain and cold, a blue tarp is hung on all sides except the back wall, which is made of metal. The missions office is in the adjacent rented building and is shared by priest-in-charge Father Jose Duvan, the director of religious education, Sister Susana Trejo, RRFF, Deacon Prudencio Rivera and pastoral volunteer Josephine Bush.
Father Duvan met with Archbishop John F. Donoghue immediately after his assignment there in March 2000 about his concerns for the mission and the need for a church. Those concerns have been echoed by previous pastors of the mission, going back to 1992, when the archdiocese secured a $29,800 grant from a foundation to lease San Felipes present building. Father Jorge Christancho, who is now assigned to St. George Church, Newnan, served in Grant Park from 1987-96. Father Christancho first saw a need for a mission in 1976, while working as a seminarian with Catholic Social Services.
The growth of the mission is largely related to the tremendous growth of Hispanics in metro Atlanta. While serving as a seminarian in the area in the 1970s, Father Christancho learned that Grant Park was an open door for immigrants settling in Atlanta. Many come to Grant Park directly from Mexico, staying with friends or relatives until they can get on their feet financially. But there are no other Hispanic Masses in the area. And that hasnt changed much since the 1970s.
They have no alternative because there arent any other Spanish Masses in the area of south Atlanta. People come from Mableton, Forest Park, Jonesboro. It is the faith the people have that makes them endure. They are very faithful to the mission, Father Duvan said.
Current ministries at San Felipe include the sacraments, visits to the sick and incarcerated, and religious education. With about 145 children in religious education for first Communion and confirmation, the groups take turns meeting both inside and outside. Services like Bible study, family formation and youth outreach are needed, the priest said.
We need to support young people with good programs, because our youth community is at risk to join gangs . . . , Father Duvan said. We need to give programs about English classes, computer classes and all social services. Its their mission, but they want something better. Frustration is building.
Betti Knott, archdiocesan director of operations, and Barrie, are aware of the communitys frustration. For the past two years she has been in her position, Knott has tried to find affordable property in the area; Barrie has worked on the project for four years. They have both researched potential sites, including the mission of Antioch Baptist Church located next door to San Felipe. But the building was too costly to renovate. In June, the archdiocese considered a church in the residential Thomasville Heights area a few miles away, but determined it was not the right location because Hispanics didnt live in the immediate area. Barrie said the biggest challenges have been finding an affordable site to meet the archdiocese standards. Weve had some opportunities that have been short-sighted. This will be a long-range plan. The other opportunities didnt allow for the growth thats anticipated. I think thats important.
As temporary quarters, the congregation was offered a building near Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Atlanta in the mid-90s by then vicar general Msgr. Edward Dillon, but members turned the offer down because it wasnt in Grant Park. More recently they were offered worship space at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, along with transportation to and from the church. That, too, was turned down by parishioners, Knott said.
Having their own facility in Grant Park has been the main desire of the community at San Felipe. Unlike Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Doraville, San Felipe has no parishes supporting it, said Father Duvan. He said many members, who are poor and largely work in landscaping, cleaning and construction, move away after saving money, but come back to worship where theyve found a church home. Since Grant Park is a well-established Hispanic community and is conveniently located near downtown Atlanta, Moreland Avenue, Boulevard and I-20, the congregation insists on relocating in that area, he said. Hopes are hinging on the current property sale.
We havent found anything better (than the 2.5 acres) in all the years weve been looking. This has been the most promising opportunity weve had. Its essentially the same location, Knott said. Its about as good as were going to get and its great because were getting parking and all types of things we wouldnt be able to get otherwise.
Barrie hopes the land deal will come through, although no contracts have been formally signed as yet.
I think it will be received positively. You dont know, Barrie said. This is too good an opportunity to pass. We hope to make it work.
Once we sign a contract for the land we can really begin working on it, said Knott. We have architects and engineers working on the plans, but we cant do anything to the land until we get the land and close on it.
Currently the archdiocese has allotted $800,000, which the mission wont have to pay back, from a mission fund for a new church, according to Mike McNamara, archdiocesan chief financial officer. He said the archdiocese subsidized $70,200 of the missions operating budget for the fiscal year ending June 2001, and this fiscal year is providing $72,300. He said that two other archdiocesan churches are given under $10,000 a year in support, but most of the churches are self-supporting.
McNamara also said that the mission building project is highly unusual because before most churches can buy or build anything they must have a third of the project cost (in hand) in equity or cash and the ability to pay back the remaining two-thirds, (which is) borrowed from the archdiocese over 10 years. The mission has raised $115,000 for the project through activities including Sunday taco sales and dances. We loan money provided we think they can pay it back. This is a very unusual situation, McNamara said.
Knott gave a guess-timate the total church project when completed would be between $1.2 and $1.8 million.
Sometime in January or early February, the archdiocese will build an engineer-designed outdoor shelter that can accommodate space heaters. The building would replace the existing one, which cannot accommodate space heaters. This would be a temporary shelter until the mission has a church built.
In the meantime, Father Duvan has been meeting monthly with archdiocesan officials.
He said his congregation remains hopeful for a new church building. I see in themthe people of Godthey have hope that tomorrow the archdiocese will also put the eyes of its heart on and help the poor people of God, he said.
Maria Sanchez, a bilingual Mexican immigrant who has lived in Grant Park with her family since moving to Atlanta from Texas in 1989, has attended San Felipe, which is down the street from her home. Her goddaughter was baptized beneath a tree in the early days of the mission in the late 1980s, when people met at an apartment for Mass.
Both she and her daughter Christina, who is employed at the Catholic Center in Atlanta, expressed love for the mission. Sanchez fondly recalled community potlucks for Thanksgiving and Christmas in the early days at the apartments. Despite crime problems, they arent interested in leaving Grant Park but want to stay and improve the community, she said.
The Spirit came into us and the Spirit said, This is going to happen. If they will assist us were going to have the mission, Christina Sanchez said. The Spirit is here (at the mission).
Father Duvan is grateful to serve the Sanchez family and other parishioners at San Felipe, as he was to serve families at other parishes where he has been assigned.
If we have all things today, maybe tomorrow we dont have anything. My faith in Christ and my prayer is the same because we are ready to be priests today and tomorrow, day and night, among the rich and among the poor, he said. Its a privilege to be here. Its an honor.