Dilapidated Porch Turned Community Chapel in Athens Marks Anniversary

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

Construction at the sisters’ convent. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

ATHENS, Ga. – When it became apparent that the weather-ravaged, time-worn porch at the Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela convent wouldn’t last another winter, the sisters living at the humble abode – a doublewide trailer in the heart of a mobile home park in Pinewood Estates North on the outskirts of Athens – decided it was time to do something. They acted on the vision of nearly a century-and-a-half-ago of St. Raphaela Mary, who founded the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1877 in Madrid, Spain.

As Sr. Margarita Martin, ACJ, tells the story: “It had always been the desire of St. Raphaela Mary to have convent chapels open to everyone. We thought, ‘What if we rebuild the porch as a small, indoor, public chapel?’ It was something we had been talking about for two or three years.”

The sisters’ convent after completion of the chapel. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

With the condition of the porch, the time seemed right to repurpose the dilapidated structure. The porch chapel is now marking its first anniversary as a result of the generosity of the Catholic Center at the University of Georgia Athens – where Frank Critch, OFM, serves as director of campus ministry – and a small army of community volunteers who contributed their time and talents to convert an ordinary porch into a special place of prayer where people experience the extraordinary love of God.

When the idea was floated, the sisters knew that neither they nor the mobile home park community would be able to muster up the financial resources necessary even for a project as humble as converting a decrepit porch into a modest, new 10 x 8 square foot enclosed chapel. While the words “oasis” and “estates” appear in the names of the convent and community, the vast majority of the families residing in the trailer park and immediate area – mostly immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico – are living below the federal poverty level.

But talk of the chapel project traveled 10 miles away to the Catholic Center on the UGA campus, which has felt the presence, leadership and spiritual guidance of Franciscan friars of Holy Name Province since 1957, when Cronan Kelly, OFM, was assigned as chaplain of the university’s Newman Club. The center has supported the work of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus since the sisters relocated from Atlanta to Athens in 2002.

The genesis of the porch-to-chapel conversion idea coincided with Frank’s arrival as director of campus ministry in January 2018. He met with Sr. Margarita, Sr. Angela Cordero, ACJ, and Sr. Marietta Jansen, ACJ – the latter a member of the center’s staff support team – and asked how the campus ministry could be helpful to their work with Pinewood families.

Catholic Center Answers the Call
With the porch chapel their top priority, Frank appealed to the center’s faith community, which generously came through with the $2,000 for the construction materials needed for the conversion.

“The sisters are very dedicated in their service to the immigrant population of the Pinewood mobile park. The UGA community and our Catholic Center is generous with financial and ministerial support for the sisters’ work,” said Frank, who as director of campus ministry leads retreats, liturgical services, community and university events, and faith formation and other pastoral programs.

The new porch at the sisters’ convent. (Photo courtesy of Frank Critch)

“The sisters are an extension of our campus community and ministry. We are blessed to have them as partners collaborating as a Franciscan community of service through works of charity and justice for the poor, immigrants and marginalized,” added Frank, noting that the Catholic Center assists the nuns throughout the year, especially with their Christmas, Easter and back-to-school outreach programs.

It is not unusual for the Catholic Center to answer the call of community partners in need, and for the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in particular. The UGA population is closely connected to the work of the sisters, as 250 students – many of whom are members of the Catholic Center – participate in an after-school program four days a week tutoring Pinewood Estates children, pre-K3 to third grade, at the Oasis Católico Center, a collection of trailers donated to the sisters for this important ministry.

Sisters Share Faith
Once the money was raised for the chapel, neighbors and members of the Pinewood mobile home community voluntarily performed the construction work, which was completed in spring 2018.

During the past year, Sr. Margarita said that women in the community, as is customary in Mexico, organized a calendar of volunteers to clean the chapel, replace votive candles, bring fresh flowers, and participate in a daily holy hour.

In addition, a group comes to the chapel daily during midday for prayer and faith sharing, she said, noting that visitors come by for prayer and reflection at all times of the day and night. When someone in the community passes away, members of the mobile park gather in prayer at the chapel, whose interior wall features a large framed image of patroness St. Raphaela Mary. The enclosed chapel has a dedicated entrance and is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Besides its outreach to the large Latino immigrant population, the Oasis Católico Center offers community building programs, special celebrations, sacramental preparation, distribution of food, diapers, clothes, and housewares, and a number of other ministries and services.

— Stephen Mangione, a writer based in Westchester County, N.Y., is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.