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Haitian parishioners flourish at Saints Peter and Paul Church

Ken Watts | 12/27/2013, 6 a.m.
The choir sings hymns of faith in Creole at a concert at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in November. Part of the proceeds will benefit the parish capital campaign. Photo by Ken Watts

— For the 16th anniversary of the Haitian community at Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church last month, nearly 200 people turned out for a concert that rocked the gymnasium with hymns of faith in Creole.

The choir sang “Alelouya Granmet la renmen nou vre” (“Hallelujah the Lord Truly Loves Us”) and “C’est si bon de louer son nom” (“It Is Good to Praise His Name”) in a gym decked out in flags of the world. The Youth Group danced and Kris Laroche and Herly Jacques sang “Atire Moi a Toi” (“Draw Me Close to You”) to the enthusiastic and appreciative crowd that rose easily and repeatedly to its feet as co-hosts Jeannine Purvis and Dominique Goda moved the program along in English and Creole.

Afterward, everyone shared a sumptuous buffet of savory Caribbean cuisine.

Other metro Atlanta parishes have Haitian enclaves, including St. John the Evangelist in Hapeville, St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville and St. Brigid in Johns Creek, but Saints Peter and Paul’s community is believed to be the oldest, dating back to 1997.

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Alberta Therlonges

Alberta Therlonges, a parishioner for several years, said the boundaries of the community extend far beyond DeKalb.

“We love it here,” she said. “People come from different ZIP codes, from Fairburn, Gwinnett and Douglas counties, and Acworth and Marietta in Cobb.”

An exact count of Haitian church members is difficult because most are not registered in the parish, but 150 to 200 attend Mass regularly at the Decatur church, growing steadily from a handful of curious immigrants in the late 1990s.

Therlonges, who studies nursing at Bauder College, said they’re comfortable.

“We feel like we’re a family here at Saints Peter and Paul. It wasn’t always that way, but the parish embraced us – they embraced our culture, whatever event we had, they’d come and support us and vice versa.”

Roman Catholicism in the impoverished nation of Haiti dates back to 1511 when Spanish missionaries evangelized Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. In 1983, the Haitian church, at the urging of Pope John Paul II, became a rallying point for reform efforts against the repressive Duvalier regime and other social ills.

Haitian immigrants to the Atlanta area brought a sense of activism with them.

In 2010, the community at Saints Peter and Paul was at the forefront of local relief efforts for victims of the earthquake that devastated Haiti where many still had relatives.

Their relationship with the parish is evolving. Therlonges said they keep their culture and hold a Haitian Mass on Sunday.

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The gym was decked out in flags of the world for the concert at the church, which attracts Haitian immigrants from Fulton, Cobb, Douglas and Gwinnett counties.

“But for big religious events like Christmas and other feast days, we join the rest of the parish and have services in English and Creole with the larger church community.”

Haitians also are rapidly entering the general flow of parish life, proud that they’re able to help Saints Peter and Paul financially.

The church is nearing the end of a four-year effort to retire the $1.5 million cost of building its new entrance and narthex reception area. Everyone has chipped in to pay off the debt, including the church’s liturgical dance troupe, the Youth Group.

Shelsie Jeudy, a Redan High sophomore who danced with troupe at the Nov. 9 concert, said they are happy to help.

“We’ll be donating part of the proceeds from this concert to the parish capital campaign,” said Shelsie, who along with dance mates Fanergela and Fadlyna Jean-Francois was born in the United States. She said the concert reasserts cultural pride.

“We’re Haitian-Americans and that makes us feel connected with two worlds,” she said. “We’re proud of both.”

Fanergela and Fadlyna said the concert reminds Haitians of their heritage. “Through this event, people see that we show our love for God just like everybody else,” Fadlyna said. “We just we do it in our own way.