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Packed in to pray
St. Michael looks to expand to serve its growing congregation
Work must be done to the inside of the future site of the St. Michael Pastoral Center in the Blue Ridge Shopping Center off Shallowford Road. The center is being built in order to overcome the crowded conditions in the church due to the growth of the Hispanic population. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Sunday is a relaxing day for most, but for Father Fabio Sotelo, it is the busiest day of the week.

The pastor at St. Michael Catholic Church is in and out of 11 mass services, starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending with the last service at 7 p.m.

Sotelo and three other pastors work all week, choreographing their schedules to perform mass, weddings, funerals and other services for the 12,000 who consider St. Michael their spiritual home.

The church has swelled with new members over the last five years, and even the high number of services isn’t enough meet the demand.

"If we had a 1,000-seat sanctuary right now we couldn’t do it," said Jerry Frady of the St. Michael pastoral council.

Terry Link, a member of the pastoral council, said the need for a new church facility became apparent after seeing the huge numbers that packed the sanctuary week after week for the popular 1 p.m. service on Sundays.

And so it was that the idea for the St. Michael Pastoral Center was born.

The church signed the lease on a building to open a satellite operation Aug. 31 with the blessing of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Work on the facility is happening quickly and Sotelo hopes to hold the inaugural service Oct. 25.

"You can’t have people kneeling in the aisles," Link said. "We have a big dilemma and this will solve some of it."

The majority of the church’s growth is Latinos, who have moved to the area and brought with them their strong Catholic faith.

"Statistically we’ve been informed that the Catholic growth in Gainesville is 3 to 5 percent per year," Frady said.

The Archdiocese of Atlanta estimates that there are now around 33,000 Catholics living in the Gainesville area.

At St. Michael, there is a ratio of three Spanish speaking members to one native English speaker.

"The Hispanic growth in Gainesville has been phenomenal," Frady said.

The new pastoral center will be in the 13,000-square-foot theater complex of the Blue Ridge Shopping Center, in the center of the Latino Community.

The once vibrant shopping complex off of Pearl Nix Parkway now sits mostly vacant. The space the church will occupy was the Rio Nightclub in its last life.

Its facade still remains less than spiritual, painted with Looney Tunes cartoon characters and bright colors.

Inside, vestiges of the dance club cling to the walls and ceiling while a sanctuary takes shape.

Neon murals cover the walls, floor to ceiling, of cowboys and rattlesnakes and the moon rising over the desert. The logo of Bacardi Rum graces the corner of the scene.

Frady leads the way through the space, as crews are building the altar, painting broad strokes with his arms to illustrate what the center will look like when it is complete.

Bright streamers hang from the ceilings in the entrance way that will one day be the lobby. A future food pantry will occupy the old ticket booth. A large space with a catering kitchen will be perfect for hosting quince años and wedding celebrations.

As the center grows, Sotelo envisions it housing a number of other services for the Latino community, including English classes, a medical clinic, youth programs and soccer fields.

"We expect it to be the center of Latino activity in Gainesville," Frady said.

For St. Michael, the pastoral center will be a way to serve Catholics who can’t make it to the main church.

For most of the Latino population in Gainesville, St. Michael Catholic Church isn’t conveniently located.

The church is three miles from the new pastoral center, which is in the heart of many Latino neighborhoods.

Without a car, getting to the church can be a challenge.

Cab fare gets expensive and walking on the roads, many without sidewalks, can be dangerous.

Garland Reynolds, the architect who designed the facility, said having the pastoral center closer to home could save lives.

The wooden crosses across the street from the church serve as a memorial for pedestrians who were killed on the road in front of the church.

"It’s a terrible intersection," Reynolds said. "Those crosses out there, that’s where people died."

The obstacles of getting to St. Michael have caused many to stay near home, Link said. They are going to other churches out of necessity.

Along the windows of the Blue Ridge Shopping Center are missions of other Christian denominations that have set up shop to minister to the Latino population.

"People are going to pray," she said. "If we’re not here, they’ll go to another one."

The Catholic Church didn’t always have such a presence in the South.

Until the last decade, Catholic churches were a side note, overshadowed by the many large Baptist and Methodist congregations in the area.

But that is starting to change.

"Many churches are experiencing growth," Sotelo said.

Sotelo said the industries in many Southern cities attract Latino workers, who in turn move and join the Catholic church.

"It’s happening in the Norcross area, it’s happening in Dalton, Calhoun," Sotelo said. "Those places that used to be very small and remote."

James E. Longstreet, the Civil War general whose surname graces institutions throughout town, was one of Gainesville’s first Catholics, Reynolds said.

After Longstreet retired to a farm near Gainesville, he opened his home for Catholic worship.

"He founded the Catholic church on Green Street," Reynolds said.

For years after, a modest Catholic population remained.

"It was a very small English-speaking church for years and years," Frady said.

Sotelo said he hopes the pastoral center will be the best answer to serve the church’s rapidly expanding population.

"We have to do something. We have to change, we have to grow," Sotelo said.