Making room for everyone at the Lord's table is the spirit behind a focused new program in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The Special Projects Program is funding the expansion of basic worship and religious education space in a few uniquely challenged parishes whose churches cannot hold all the people coming for Mass or religious education.
The program immediately will address needs in three churches -- a parish and two missions in Cedartown, Gainesville and Lilburn.
The three communities are growing so quickly -- with particularly large increases in Latino members -- that they have even run out of room in overflow spaces for Mass and programs. On top of that, the faith communities had virtually no funds in the bank to remedy the situation.
Under the program, a fund has been established for parishes and missions to tap into construction projects. Guidelines give the faith communities time to repay the funds and in return fund the construction needs of other parishes and mission churches.
Archdiocesan officials believe the program is unique in the United States.
The first three recipients are St. Bernadette Church in Cedartown, St. John Paul II Mission in Gainesville, and Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn.
"I called this my World Bank project," said Peter Faletti, retired director of planning for the archdiocese, who drafted the charter governing the program. "To me, that was the concept that was needed."
While the program is a direct outcome of the 2015 Archdiocesan Pastoral Plan, the parish needs it is designed to address first surfaced during a strategic planning process undertaken by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory in 2006.
Faletti was a consultant for a private company when it was awarded the archdiocese's strategic planning project. When the project ended in 2009, he joined the archdiocese.
"Inside of that project, I interviewed all pastors," Faletti told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Atlanta Archdiocese. "We went out into the field. We just let them talk, and they were very consistent."
Since Faletti initially met with pastors in 2007, he has led a triennial review allowing priests to share issues confidentially with planning staff.
The archdiocese's pastoral plan includes a pillar titled "Evolution of Our Parishes," emphasizing the need to create welcoming environments for all cultures within parishes. The Special Projects Program is a response to that need.
"We must reallocate the resources of the archdiocese in creative ways to find and support this expansion of facilities in our high growth areas," Archbishop Gregory wrote in the plan. "To accomplish this, our archdiocese will need to provide both financial resources and support teams."
Responding creatively to such challenges also brings out the unmet needs of fellow Catholics, Faletti said.
For example, St. Joseph Church in Dalton at one point rented space at a trailer park to help meet the spiritual needs of Catholics in its community. Later, a former car dealership was procured for additional space for Masses. The result was a revelation.
"It was a very creative moment," Faletti recalled. "Six weeks later, they were out of room." That's when it occurred to him, "How many people are we not serving?"
The Special Projects Oversight Committee was formed and began meeting in summer 2015 after the unveiling of the pastoral plan. Committee members established an application process and criteria that applicants had to meet including overcrowded Masses and in religious education programs for at least one year and minimal funds to pay for expanding.
The archdiocese set aside $12 million for the program with funding from various sources including a bequest and the sale of a house briefly used as an archbishop's residence, said Brad Wilson, chief financial officer of the archdiocese.
Wilson said the effort responds to the call in the Acts of the Apostles to spread the Gospel. "We are one church," he said.
Parishes or missions approved for the program must raise 10 percent of the cost of a project before the remainder is funded. Once projects are complete, the first program recipients will pay back into the fund so that other projects can begin. A monthly rent payment to the archdiocese will lead to eventual ownership of their building.
St. Bernadette, a parish since the 1950s in a town about 60 miles northwest of Atlanta, has experienced phenomenal growth. The church has about 80 seats, Father Timothy Gallagher, pastor, said.
The parish, which already owned land for a future building, has rented storefront space but still finds it a challenge to accommodate its growth. Between 400 and 500 people squeeze into the rented space, which is in need of repairs, for Mass.
Archbishop Gregory joined St. Bernadette parishioners May 7 for the groundbreaking for a new church building in a festival-like event. Families tailgated while children enjoyed faced painting, games and activities in a 13-acre field about two miles from their current parish home.
"We are super excited," said parishioner Laura Flores. She attended the ceremony with her siblings and parents, enjoying an afternoon meal prepared by volunteers. Her parents, Pedro Sr. and Maria Flores, have been parishioners there for 30 years.
"There's not enough room for all the parishioners," Flores said.
Archbishop Gregory blessed the ground with holy water from a camouflage, stainless steel cup.
"Wherever you are gathered, there is the church," he told parishioners.
Such is the vision of the Special Projects Programs.
Before retiring last year, Faletti encouraged church leaders to keep ahead of growth that will continue.
"If you think you've been growing, you have no idea," he told them. "It's going to put tremendous pressure on our priests. That's why this process we put into place is so critical for the health of our archdiocese."
If the diocese cannot provide access to the sacraments to all, "they'll go somewhere else," Faletti said. "It's so basic and it's so challenging."
The pastoral and strategic planning processes gave Archbishop Gregory the unique opportunity to understand challenges.
"He made sure we responded," Faletti said about the program. "It's a good start, and I just hope it can grow."