Road Trip Around The Archdiocese, Destination: St. Bernadette Church
Published: August 5, 2004
Just outside the heart of Cedartown, a visitor will come upon a cemetery on the left side of Highway 278, across from the red and white colors of Cedartown High School. Two miles later at the intersection of College Street and East Avenue, churches occupy three of the four corners. They include the First Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church and St. Bernadette Church, the place where spiritual life flourishes for Cedartown’s Catholic faithful.
A small brick structure with a steep pitched roof, St. Bernadette’s is the kind of church where punctuality is a priority because seating is limited. There are nine pews on the left and 11 pews on the right, with a center aisle and no side aisles. The left side gets shortchanged in order to provide a small area in the rear for the musicians at the 8:30 a.m. Spanish Mass and for the black Yamaha Clavinova digital piano that Patrick Layman plays at the 10 a.m. Mass in English. Even with a few extra chairs placed at the front of the church, there’s seating for fewer than 100 people. A word to the wise: Don’t show up late for Mass.
The interior of St. Bernadette is simple, yet inviting. Chandeliers giving off incandescent light hang over the pews. A round, multicolored stained glass window is positioned above and behind the white marble altar. Stands on the left side of the altar hold the American and papal flags. To the right of the altar is the tabernacle and sanctuary lamp. Next to that is a side entrance that leads from the church to the parish hall. In between is a small room that serves as a chapel. It contains statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, flowers and votive candles.
The parish hall was built in 1978 when Msgr. Leo Herbert was the pastor. The current pastor is Father Rafael Castaño, one of 19 Colombian-born priests serving the Archdiocese of Atlanta in active ministry. Like many of the 17 pastors who preceded him, he serves St. Bernadette Church in his first pastorate, which he assumed on Jan. 24, 2002. Three or four Sundays a month Father Castaño also makes the 18-mile drive to Rome, where he celebrates the 12:30 p.m. Spanish Mass at St. Mary’s Church.
The Cherokee and Creek Indian tribes originally inhabited the land making up modern day Cedartown. Sometime between 1826 and 1832, Cedartown became a trading center once settlers moved to the Cedar Valley, but almost 110 years passed before the founding members of St. Bernadette attended their first Mass, which was celebrated by Msgr. Joseph Cassidy. At two different times in parish history the Redemptorist Fathers assumed responsibility for the church—for a year and a half in the early 1940s and for 11 years between May 1946 and July 1957. From that point on St. Bernadette was officially made a parish of the Diocese of Atlanta, and Msgr. R. Donald Kiernan was named the first pastor.
Msgr. Kiernan made his trip to Cedartown with Bishop Francis E. Hyland, the first bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, and Msgr. Michael Regan. He rented an apartment on North College Street until the church’s rectory was constructed. His first night in Cedartown was a memorable one. Msgr. Kiernan said, “I lost the key to the church and had to go to the police station, where Cedartown’s police chief had to let me in to my own church.” Jerry Deckbar of Atlanta was the architect and Benefield Co. of Cedartown was the builder for the rectory project. Msgr. Kiernan said the construction for the rectory came in at a cost of $16,400.
“I remember the people of St. Bernadette as a hard-working group of parishioners who made the church their life. They made a great impression on the people of Cedartown,” he said as he reflected back on his time at the church.
Cedartown and St. Bernadette Church share common characteristics. Both are small and quaint, in a charming kind of way. As you drive or walk around, some of the town’s historic landmarks include the Polk County Court House, the Cedartown Post Office and the art deco design of the West Theater, which was built in 1941, the same year as St. Bernadette Church. A variety of small businesses can be found along Main Street’s commercial district, but there’s also the 950-seat Cedartown Civic Auditorium, the venue for cultural events, and the multipurpose Peek’s Park, which includes a contemporary children’s playground, a picnic area, a swimming pool and tennis courts.
Expansion and transformation for both Cedartown and St. Bernadette is subtle, slow and measured. Today, Cedartown’s population is approaching 10,000. The biggest change surrounding St. Bernadette is the growth in the Hispanic community. Although the majority of this community is Mexican, a sizeable number of Guatemalan people also attend the parish. Parishioners agree that whether you’ve been a member of St. Bernadette Church for five years or 50, being “small” is a favorable quality of their parish. It provides a warmth and closeness for its members.
Daphne Lindsey, 75, who became a member of St. Bernadette Church over 50 years ago, brought up five children in the parish community with her late husband Ed. For one year back in 2000 she lived in Salt Lake City, where she attended the city’s Cathedral of the Madeleine. Even with its history and grandeur, Lindsey said, “Getting back to St. Bernadette was like coming back home, and it’s good to be home.”
This is the final part in a series of articles by Michael Alexander conveying in words and photos his visits to St. Helena Mission, Clayton, St. Elizabeth Seton Mission, Warm Springs, and St. Bernadette Parish, Cedartown.