St. Toribio Romo Mission Growing In Murray County
PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin, Published: February 14, 2013
ATLANTA—The new St. Toribio Romo Mission welcomes Mexican immigrants and other people across Murray County, east of Dalton, to its first house of worship in a renovated car dealership on the main Chatsworth highway.
Named after a popular saint among Mexican migrants, the mission of St. Joseph’s Church in Dalton held its first Mass on the feast of Christ the King, the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Atlanta Archdiocese purchased the building at 2402 U.S. Highway 76, Chatsworth. Some 600 people worshipped and celebrated their official designation as a mission. Previously the predominantly Mexican congregation gathered for Mass in a doublewide trailer.
Six hundred people attend the first Mass at the new mission in northwest Georgia last November. St. Toribio Romo Mission, Chatsworth, is a mission of St. Joseph Church, Dalton. (Photos courtesy of Father Paul Williams)
“This has been a lot of work to pull this together. It really has been a work of the people. Their faith is so important to them,” said Father Paul Williams.
“Now we have a really beautiful building in the heart of Murray County and Chatsworth, very accessible and visible on the main highway, and we expect it to continue to grow and be paid off and properly designed and decorated,” he said.
The pastor of St. Joseph and of the new mission said it is reaching new people.
“We did see a good number of new faces,” he said. “We knew there was that population that was being underserved. Our primary reason for doing it was to reach out to people who found it difficult to make it to St. Joseph’s. Some don’t drive and because of poverty it was difficult.”
A Sacred Heart statue welcomes visitors into the former car showroom, and a marble altar made by a parishioner beautifies the space, along with photographs taken by Father Williams of living Stations of the Cross enacted over the years by St. Joseph parishioners.
Among those laboring at the mission is Nemorio Andrade, who remodels, repairs and cleans the building on weekday mornings before heading off in the afternoon to his paying job as a mechanic at a Dalton carpet factory.
“God revealed this place to me in a dream. It’s very pretty and very big and we have a lot of work to do. We are going to see it much prettier,” Andrade said. “We want to see this church a parish in a few years. The community is ready to work, to do what is needed. We have carpenters, masons, electricians.”
Having moved to the area four years ago, Andrade serves St. Toribio Romo as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, a Mass coordinator and lector. Along the way he has discovered true faith, which has enlightened his path and eased the pain of his father’s death in Mexico.
The mission has transformed a car dealership into worship space with the assistance of the archdiocese.
“I began to discover and grow in my faith in the ways of God, and I was learning so many things. My mission as a Catholic was not only to go to Mass but to serve and learn the teachings of the church,” Andrade reflected. “I try to help with what I can with the church. It’s part of my week and evangelizing others. And I feel good. It makes my life easier and my problems are resolved more quickly.”
The mission first began holding Mass in a trailer in Eton for about 50 people and by 2010 moved to a doublewide in Crandall where it drew some 200. Then the car dealership came up for sale about 12 miles from St. Joseph’s. With Murray County being 13.6 percent Hispanic, Father Williams knew that is where the mission should move. So after months of negotiations, the archdiocese in 2012 purchased the building. And it did so in light of its preferential option for the poor as about 28 percent of Murray County Hispanics lived in poverty as of 2009, according to City-Data.com. The mission is currently leasing from the archdiocese as it saves up funds through food sales and other efforts to buy the building and assume the mortgage.
“The archbishop and I agreed we had to take a risk to reach out and minister to the poorest among us, and that is bearing fruit now. It’s been a wonderful blessing,” Father Williams said. “There is a huge, booming population, young and lots of kids. There’s a growing need here. … This will be really built by a poor population, an immigrant community in Murray County, who will be doing the work week to week and month to month.”
St. Joseph’s transformation into a booming bilingual parish of over 10,000 active members reflects the demographics of the growing region in the North Georgia foothills. St. Joseph’s has five of its seven Masses in Spanish, has celebrated over 600 baptisms yearly for the past 12 years, and has 1,000 catechism students at elementary and middle school ages, plus 300 more high school teens.
“If the economy ever gets back on its feet, this area will just boom again, and that will be reflected in the Hispanic community in Dalton and Chatsworth,” the pastor said. “We will be here to celebrate that growth and stay up with it so the community continues to thrive on all levels. … The Hispanic population is very community-oriented and very devotional and very sacramental, and so the sacramental life of the church is very much a part of their lives.”
The community named the mission after a Mexican priest martyred in 1928 as he persevered in ministry during years of clergy persecution by the government known as the Cristero Rebellion. Father Williams believes it’s the first U.S. church named after him and said he is also symbolic of religious freedom. The church will celebrate his feast day in May.
This year the mission will add the celebration of sacraments of baptisms and marriages and expects the number of children receiving first Communion to grow from 40 to 75. Other priorities are to add more bathrooms and air conditioning in the worship space, adapt rooms for classroom use and make plans to adapt the sanctuary to Spanish-mission style.
Father Williams joyfully perseveres with such labors, having begun working in Hispanic ministry 17 years ago after only two years of high school Spanish and now ministering fully in the language. And he gladly partners with parochial vicar Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez, who has “such energy and joy” and a “wonderful connection” with the people.
“The Lord gave me a heart for Hispanic ministry and to now see it bearing beautiful fruit is very fulfilling,” said Father Williams.
The pastor’s right-hand layman at the church, Victor Hernandez, 48, also finds a sense of mission to “build a church for the Lord.”
“It has been difficult and challenging, but you can say we are blessed to work for the church and try to make it a better community and understand the community needs,” Hernandez said. “Conditions were very, very difficult at the old place. Everybody was cramped and no room for classes.”
As community liaison, Hernandez said that members love the mission and are eager to create a more Catholic space. And they are “very, very hungry” for Bible study and other religious education classes in the new building.
“Sometimes we have to open our hearts and listen because the Lord is always calling us to do something, and sometimes we don’t do anything and wait for somebody else to do it,” Hernandez said. “I’m very pleased and proud of this community. Everybody is trying to do as much as possible. … You can see the love of the people for the church and their love for Father Paul and Father Duvan. They were waiting for so long for this to happen.”