Boom: Catholic Church growing in Georgia

 Photo: by John Rawlston

Details, from The Chattanooga Times Free Press: 

Two separate car dealerships failed at a concrete-and-glass showroom built in 2001 in Chatsworth, Ga.

Then Dalton’s St. Joseph’s Catholic Church bought the 22,000-square-foot building on U.S. Highway 76 in 2012 to establish a mission in Murray County, which had no Catholic church.

“It had 600 people the very first day, which kind of got me in trouble with the fire marshal,” said the Rev. Paul Williams, the pastor who leads St. Joseph’s. “It’s full every Sunday.”

When it came time to name the mission, the mostly Spanish-speaking parishioners picked the patron saint of Mexican immigrants, St. Toribio Romo González. He was a priest killed in 1928 when Catholics were being persecuted in Mexico. His spirit still is said to guide the impoverished across the border.

“It was almost unanimous: St. Toribio Romo,” Williams said.

The former dealership features what’s jokingly referred to as “Chevy Jesus,” a statue of Jesus placed upon a large Chevrolet emblem in the floor, said Williams, a self-described “car guy” who drag races a 900-horsepower Chevy Camaro as a hobby.

While older mainline churches in the Bible Belt have seen their attendance fall, the Catholic church continues to grow in Georgia. Its pews are now mainly filled by Hispanics, Williams said, both newcomers to the United States and families who have been here for two or three generations.

“The Catholic Church is booming — especially in Georgia,” said Williams. “There are more Hispanic than English-speaker [Catholics] in Georgia.”

Georgia has more than 1 million Catholics now, he said, compared to less than 500,000 about 20 years ago.

Williams has seen the growth first-hand.

St. Joseph’s has between 5,000 and 7,000 people come every weekend to the five Spanish and two English Masses held at its campus built in 2000 in a leafy, upscale Dalton neighborhood.

“Every day, there’s something going on in this church,” said Miguel Trivino, 37, a corporate safety manager for Shaw Industries who attended a noon weekday Mass last week.

“The Hispanic community here in Dalton, it’s a growing community,” said Trivino, who followed all that was said and sung during Mass using an app on his smart phone.

A third priest is due to start working soon alongside Williams and Padre Duvan Gonzales. All three priests speak Spanish and English.

Last year, St. Joseph’s converted an old funeral home in downtown Dalton into a mission that serves some 200 Guatemalans who have trouble traveling to the main church.

Williams said St. Joseph’s is trying to be a church that goes to where the people are. That’s been a theme of Pope Francis, he said. Every time the church does so, it gains new members, Williams said. It’s not siphoning worshipers from its main campus.

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