Thanks to Joseph Johnson, brother of Rodger Johnson for alerting me to this video:
2015-2016 Lumen Christi Award Recipient
A Miracle in the South
October 5, 2015
It was close to 100 degrees on a Saturday afternoon in August when Father Fredy Angel gave visitors a tour at the construction site of the impressive new church his parish is building outside of Ray City, Georgia. Wearing a white hard hat with blue lettering coming down its front spelling “FR ANGEL”—the “A” topped by a little halo—the Colombian-born missionary priest was accompanied by Juan Salazar, a parishioner who has been leading a crew of volunteer workers in the construction of St. Anthony of Padua Church.
The previous weekend the volunteers had finished their work on the exterior walls. The next step was to build the trusses for putting up the roof. The bell tower, its shell already assembled, sat on the ground in front of the church, waiting for that roof so it could be hoisted on top.
During his tour Father Angel stopped at the concrete steps where the altar will be constructed. A few months earlier, he explained, the parish community had gathered at this very spot. “I asked them to bring a religious article that [had special meaning] in their lives.” It could be a rosary, a saint’s statue, a crucifix, a medal or a book—anything that could be a symbol of their faith.
Parishioners brought their religious articles to a plastic-lined hole in the ground. Father Angel opened the ceremony with prayer and placed a broken statue of Mary into the hole. Next were old chalices, patens, sacramentaries and missals. Then, Father Angel said, he placed one of his albs and a stole into the hole, “representing not just my priesthood, but that of all the priests who have worked here in the parish, and for the future priests, too.”
Finally, it was the parishioners’ turn to plant their own “seeds of faith.” At the very end, Sharon Walter, a former parishioner who had traveled from Atlanta, placed a copy of the Shroud of Turin on top.
Believed by many to be the burial shroud of Jesus, it was a powerful reminder to the parishioners that they are the body of Christ, and that if their community is to grow, they too have to be part of the death and resurrection of Christ.
The construction of St. Anthony of Padua Church, scheduled to be dedicated in early 2016, is a dream-come-true for Catholics in this area of southern Georgia near the city of Valdosta.
Retired Bishop Kevin Boland of the Diocese of Savannah, in which Father Angel works, said, “What you see happening in Lakeland and in Adel, in Nashville and in Ray City, in all of that part of south Georgia, that’s kind of a miracle in the South. The reason why the Church there is able to accomplish this—with the help of Catholic Extension and others—is the vibrancy of the faith of the Catholic people.”
For the past eight years Father Angel has been the pastor of St. Anthony of Padua’s predecessor parish—Queen of Peace in Lakeland and its missions—which covers a large geographical area spanning initially four and today three counties. In that role he has been the energetic, tireless and enthusiastic shepherd, teacher, motivator and guiding force behind what one of his parishioners called a “revival” among Catholics there.
“In the Protestant Churches here, they talk about revival week,” said parishioner Chris Chammoun. “But with us it’s been a revival of eight years. We’ve been reviving our spirit and bringing in new people who are excited about coming to Church.”
Chammoun added, “Since Father Fredy has been leading us on this new journey, we’ve seen a lot of growth. Sunday Mass here is overflowing. People have to sit outside, which can be rough in the 100-degree weather. But people still do it and sweat because they want to be here for Mass.”
In the process of that revival, the pastor has also bound a diverse community of African American, white, Latino and Asian American Catholics closer together; has planted, grown and nurtured a deeper faith among his parishioners; has motivated and educated children, youth and adults; has earned the respect of the area’s larger, non-Catholic community; and now leads the parish in the building of their new church. Undertaking such an ambitious construction project has instilled pride and great expectations in its members and is already resulting in a more prominent and visible presence of Catholicism in an area where Catholics are only a small minority.
Catholic Extension is proud to present Father Angel with its 2015–2016 Lumen Christi Award. “Lumen Christi” is Latin for “Light of Christ.” The award honors an individual or group who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. Recipients are honored not only for the light and hope they bring to forgotten corners of the country, but for inspiring others to be “Lights of Christ” as well.
Catholic Extension President Father Jack Wall said, “We are honoring Father Fredy Angel for the inspiration he gives not only to the growing Catholic population in southern Georgia, but to all American Catholics. Father Fredy embodies the service and courage of America’s missionary priests who are playing a critical role in building up the fabric of our Church and of this nation.”
Bishop Gregory Hartmayer of the Diocese of Savannah, who nominated Father Angel for the award, said that from the first time he met him in 2011, “Father Fredy impressed me with his genuineness, his simplicity, his enthusiasm, his joy. He seemed to be a man who was really in love with what he was doing.” The Franciscan bishop added, “Father Fredy was named properly in having been given the family name ‘Angel,’ because he is an ‘angel,’ a messenger of God to the people he serves. He brings them hope, joy and the presence of Christ in the sacraments, so he is truly a light of Christ.”
Eight years ago, when Father Angel became the parish’s pastor, Lauren Salazar—Juan and his wife Lourdes’ daughter—was only 8 years old. But looking back, she choked up as she remembered,
“When Father Fredy came here, you knew things were going to change. We were so small, and not many people came to Church. But things have changed for the better.” She said, “Father Fredy has that aspiration to make us grow, to make our religion stronger and make it help people.”
Salazar, just like her brother, Manuel, has been an altar server for many years. She said, “Being Catholic is the best thing. It’s something my parents taught me, but we have that choice to keep believing or not. I like being Catholic. I’ll always be Catholic.”
As is common in this part of southern Georgia, Salazar often gets put on the spot by her peers for being Catholic. “In high school when I tell others that I’m Catholic, they go ‘Whoa. You’re Catholic?’” She said, with Catholics being a small minority, people don’t have much exposure to or understanding of Catholicism. “They say, ‘Oh, they worship statues,’ so it’s strange to them.” Father Angel’s catechesis and homilies have helped her answer those challenges and questions from her classmates.
The parish youth group she tries to keep going has been hampered by being “so scattered,” with teens living far from each other, and also by the lack of suitable space for youth activities. “With the new church,” Salazar said, “I’d like us to have more regular activities and talk about the faith. Hopefully, with the central location and new facilities, we can bring more people to the youth group.”
Another teen, Natalie Rojas, said she too is looking forward to having more space for youth activities. As an avid soccer player, she particularly likes that two soccer fields will be built next to the new church and that the parish is planning to hold tournaments there.
Within the 90 counties of the Diocese of Savannah, Catholics are fewer than 3 percent of the population, and in rural areas like St. Anthony of Padua’s Berrien, Lanier, and Cook Counties the percentage is even lower.
But over the past two decades, southern Georgia has seen a considerable influx of Latino immigrants, most of whom work in the area’s cotton, pecan and peanut fields or the poultry industry.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, the percentage of Hispanics in the parish’s three counties has risen from 1.7 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2011. That increase has also led to growth among the Catholic population.
In 2007, when Father Angel arrived as pastor of Queen of Peace in Lakeland, the parish had three missions: St. Margaret Mary in Adel, St. Mary in Nashville, and San José, a Spanish-language mission in Twin Lakes. Constantly driving between those four locations for Masses and pastoral work, he put an average of 30,000 miles per year on his car.
All of the communities had been struggling and were in poor repair. The rectory was run down and infested with mildew, and the church buildings, Father Angel remembered, “weren’t really spaces to worship the Lord.”
But rather than despair, Father Angel got to work. “Father Fredy is a cleaner,” noted Bishop Hartmayer. “Everything has to be immaculate. His house is clean, his rectory and his office are clean, his churches are clean because that’s the way he needs it, and so he cleans and cleans, and he gets his people to do the same. When they see him sweeping and scrubbing floors and wiping down pews, they join him because he does it first.”
At the verge of burnout, in 2009 he wrote a letter to Bishop Boland. “I got to a point where even the celebration of the Eucharist, became empty. It made me sad and frustrated.” He knew it wasn’t serving his parish either. “I told my bishop that I was getting tired and losing my vocation. We need to do something to unify the churches.”
The diocese responded by reassigning San José Mission to a parish in Valdosta, and Father Angel began to work with his parishioners toward consolidating, rebuilding and reviving the remaining three sites into a combined new and stronger Catholic faith community.
Mary Ann Woody was one of the parishioners who initially had a hard time accepting the closing of St. Mary’s. “The church I grew up in was part of a very small community. To me, rural means being close like a family—schools are small, the town is small, and the church is small, but there’s love. It’s taken a lot of praying,” she acknowledged, “but we’re getting there. Father Fredy has been very strong in helping us get through those transitions.”
Since February 2014, when St. Margaret Mary Mission in Adel closed, the parish has been celebrating Mass at two locations—on Sundays at the “mother church” in Lakeland and on Saturdays at the United Methodist Church in Ray City, whose congregation generously provides its worship space free of charge.
Thanks to Father Angel’s leadership, eventually parishioners got excited about building a new larger church. What got the ball rolling was one parishioner’s generous donation of 16 acres of land at a central location near Ray City that would be no more than 20 miles from any of the four main towns.
Retired General John Folkerts said he once “mentioned to Father Fredy, almost in passing, ‘Father, if needed, I can probably provide the land.’ I don’t think he forgot that. Then the bishop came,” he added with a laugh, “and he was talking about it, too. You don’t say no to that.”
Folkerts, who chairs the parish’s building committee, said, “There’s been a role for everyone. For those who can contribute money, there is a role, and for those who can provide labor, there is a role. We have been blessed to have a contractor who made it possible to build our church in this way with the volunteer labor.”
Although the work of Juan Salazar’s team of volunteer workers has allowed the parish to save money on the construction, financing it is still a daunting challenge. “We get worried sometimes about raising the money,” Chris Chammoun said, “but Father Fredy makes us feel that we can reach our goal. He’s the glass-half-full kind of person.”
Father Angel clearly is a gifted teacher, and his parishioners look forward to the dialogue homilies he engages them in while moving up and down the center aisle. “Father Fredy is a teaching priest,” said Gary Amiot. “I’ve heard these same readings, it seems like for 100 years, but he brings them to life.” Amiot even credits Father Angel with bringing his brother back to the Church. While they went fishing, Amiot kept telling his brother things he’d learned from the homilies. That made his brother come check things out for himself, and now the two of them drive the 20 miles to Church together. “He would say, ‘Father Fredy was directly talking to me.’ I have felt the same thing, and many others have, too.”
Steven Mancuso, the parish’s director of religious education, said, “I wouldn’t be in formation for the permanent diaconate if it wasn’t for Father Angel.” He added that “from the first time we walked in here, it was impressive, because a lot of the South is very divided. For example, you have white Baptist churches and you have black Baptist churches. But we walked in here, and it was pretty well mixed. You had African American Catholics in here, white Catholics, Latinos, and Asians.”
Many parishioners cite the bilingual Masses and potlucks on the first weekend of each month as key in building bridges between the English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners. The monthly events are important to Father Angel, who works hard to “make it nice” and to encourage his parish. “I’ve told the Anglos, ‘You don’t have to speak Spanish, just say hola.’ When we are in the supermarket, we need to recognize each other. And I’ve told the same to the Spanish-speaking community, ‘You can say hello. That’s all the English you need to know.’”
Parishioner Ana Beltrán said, “Here in southern Georgia, a lot of people have that division: The Latinos hang out more with the Latinos, and the Anglos with the Anglos, and the African Americans with the African Americans, but once we come through that church door, we are one, we are family, just one Catholic community.”
Longtime parishioner Michael McCrae said he has been coming to Queen of Peace Church since he was 2 or 3 years old. “When we first started in 1941, the parish was all black except for one family, the Johnsons, but over the last few decades that has changed. Now everybody enjoys everybody, even though we have different people and different cultures.” He added, “When he preach on Sunday morning, y’all might have heard an ‘Amen’ in there, which in a Catholic Church in this area, you don’t hear.” That’s his wife, he said. “She’s not Catholic, but she still likes it in this Catholic church.”
Perhaps Juan Salazar’s wife, Lourdes, summed up best why Father Angel is this year’s Lumen Christi Award recipient: “Father Fredy is a person filled with God, and everyone who listens to him is filled with joy. He has united our community.
“God has sent him to us,” Salazar added, “I want to thank him not just for the construction of the new church, but also for the construction of our hearts, which little by little has led to changes in our lives. Father Fredy was the one who planted the mustard seed. I know this seed will bear many fruits, and we are those fruits, all of us who have been coming here.”