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Parish perseveres despite pandemic

Author/Contributor: Mary Veal
Publication Date: 2020-09-03
Parish: Saint Paul, Douglas

A quiet but joyful celebration is taking place in the hearts of parishioners at St. Paul, Douglas. Unable to cut a ribbon and have a party to mark the completion of their parish activity center, they can only lovingly smile in pride as they look at it and make carefully masked visits inside. Walking in from the church to the main entrance, the doors open onto a large, very beautiful tile mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her image embraces the essence of diversity in this growing parish.
Once one of the smallest churches in Douglas, St. Paul’s Catholic Church is now one of the largest. With a spacious new sanctuary dedicated in 2006, the parish has grown rapidly in this predominantly Protestant part of the South. However, the need for a parish activity center was quickly evident. Originally, temporary modular units were used for office space and a chapel, with a few classrooms, but increasingly the congregation knew that more was required.
In 2016 the decision was made to actively pursue the dream, and in January 2017 fund-raising was initiated. The diocese promised approval when pledges reached the goal of one million dollars, and the parish rose to the challenge, led by Fr. Paul O’Connell. Gary Holland, as head of book keeping, carefully planned and balanced the financial needs and contributions.
Exact needs were decided, blueprints drawn up, and Lewis Construction was chosen as the builder. Pledge cards went out to parishioners. Often, fund-raising took on a delicious aroma as the Hispanic community gave whole-heartedly of themselves, preparing Sunday lunches for sale to raise funds, sending everyone home with homemade tacos and tamales. Raffles became a regular feature for the very active Knights of Columbus, the Ladies’ Auxiliary had bake sales, while garage sales helped, too. The massive success of the colorful Our Lady of Guadalupe festival added to the fund as well. 
All watched with tremendous anticipation when the official word was given that construction could begin and the foundation was dug. Every week when attending Mass, the progress was carefully watched with great hope and pride until finally it seemed that Easter 2020 would mark the actual opening of the doors…then in February COVID 19 arrived, altering the universe.
Not only were those doors to remain shut at Easter, but the church itself remained closed as Coffee County battled high numbers of COVID infections just like everyone else in the world. The long-awaited building stood, completed, yet the parish still waited.
Hope surfaced and spirits rose when the Diocese of Savannah allowed in-person Mass to resume at the end of May. With the help of caring volunteers, in July Fr. Paul, Janet Benton, church secretary, and Gary Holland began the task of moving their offices into the spacious new building. 
With special permission from the Bishop, Fr. Paul consecrated the altar in the new chapel on July 16th, the feast day of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. This was particularly meaningful because of a beautiful Russian icon of St. Mary of the Assumption that graces the new chapel. This was the gift from an anonymous donor whose family immigrated to America from Russia, carrying the precious icon.
It is traditional that a relic be enclosed in an altar and the one in this chapel altar has a particularly amazing history. The relic of St. Anthony Pucci was obtained by Fr. Paul years ago, and he had stored it away, not knowing when the occasion would come for its use. But a most amazing parallel occurred: Fr. Paul discovered that St. Antony Pucci lived in the 1800’s, caring for his parishioners during the time of two epidemics in Italy. There could not be a more perfect relic to bless St. Paul’s at this particular time in history.
In this building of almost 18,000 square feet, the religious education of the children of the parish will be met by a total of 15 classrooms which will be available for 200 children, an ever-increasing number. The Atkinson Country Board of Education generously donated 250-300 desks for use where needed in classrooms.
Perhaps most awesome is the large parish hall itself, holding 500 people. This will enable the congregation to socialize in a way never before possible, with parish dinners, events, and even as a place for its popular Our Lady of Guadalupe festival in case of bad weather in the future.
The steps to put the new building to its full use will be baby steps, continuing the wait to achieve the normalcy of ordinary active parish life. But someday soon, the classrooms will be filled with noisy children, parish dinners will be shared, and these walls will echo joy and spirituality.
Already the church offices are up and running in their new home, meetings of the Knights of Columbus and Women’s Auxiliary can be safely spaced in the new hall, and there is hope that the chapel will be able to go into daily use when on September 8th, the feast of the Nativity of our Lady, the chapel will be dedicated to Our Lady.
The Parish Activity Center is a building that has been long-awaited, and on one level, it is still waiting to be used in its entirety. St. Paul’s cannot fully embrace the miracle of its new expansion, as parish life is limited in this stressful time of pandemic, just as all other parts of our lives are affected and changed. But it is a parish that has always been capable of looking ahead to the future, planning for their children and the generations to come. 
Bishop Elect Stephen D. Parkes, has planned to bless this the building on October 4th at 2p.m. in the afternoon, celebrating the long struggle of this parish. In completing the project, St. Paul parish has been sustained in hope and prayer, and feels truly blessed and thankful.

Article and photographs submitted by Mary Veal, Parishioner
St. Paul, Douglas

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