The perseverance of the parishioners at St. Anthony Church in Fayetteville has finally paid off with the dedication and blessing on Sunday, May 2, of the new St. Anthony Catholic Faith Formation Center.
“Today will be a historically memorable day in the annals of St. Anthony Parish,” said Pastor Father George Panthananickal, CMI.
“It’s good to look around and see all God has blessed us with,” Bishop J. Mark Spalding told the parishioners gathered in the new facility before he blessed and dedicated the building. “You are a community that has endured.”
“God sent a lot to test you. He gave you the rain and the rock and even a pandemic to struggle through,” Bishop Spalding said. “But we’re here.”
The new faith formation center includes 12 classrooms, a full kitchen, storage space and a hall that can accommodate up to 300 people and can also be used for basketball and volleyball games. The cost of the multi-purpose facility is about $1.3 million.
For the parish to grow, Father Panthananickal said, “this facility is absolutely necessary. This will definitely give a boost for the faith formation of the children, and I hope more families will join.”
The parish’s religious education program has been constrained by a lack of space for years, said Patty Wright, St. Anthony’s director of religious education.
Before the pandemic, the religious education program had about 120 students each year. The parish had to turn every available space into makeshift classrooms, including dividing the old parish hall with foldable walls, the cry room in the church, and even the pastor’s house, Wright said.
The catechists were keeping their materials in plastic tubs. “It’s just very difficult to conduct class,” Wright said. “We have these kids one hour a week for 30 weeks. There’s a lot to teach.”
But in the new Faith Formation Center, each class has its own room, where the teachers can keep all their materials. “They have space for everything,” Wright said.
She hopes the new facility will make it easier to recruit teachers for the program. “With volunteers, you want to make sure it’s easy for everyone,” she said.
The Faith Formation Center will also open new possibilities for the parish’s youth program.
With the pandemic, the number of students in the program has fallen to about 60 students, Wright said, but she hopes with the pandemic easing and the new facility, the number will grow to pre-pandemic levels and beyond. “It opens up so much potential for growth.”
When the late Bishop David Choby first gave his approval for the parish to move forward with the project, he advised that they build the faith formation center big enough to accommodate the parish’s future needs, recalled Richard Paladino, the chair of the parish’s planning committee and the liaison between the parish and the contractor, Brindley Construction of Pulaski.
“We have enough space for the next 20 years,” Paladino said.
The parish, which has about 240 registered families, is growing, Paladino said. Much of the growth is fueled by the growth of the city of Huntsville, just across the Alabama state line.
People who are drawn to jobs in Huntsville are moving to Fayetteville where it is cheaper to buy homes and property, Paladino explained. Many of the parish’s families live in Alabama but attend St. Anthony because it is the closest church to their homes.
The Hispanic community in the parish also is growing, and St. Anthony added a Spanish Mass and Father Panthananickal learned Spanish so he could celebrate Mass for the community.
Having the Faith Formation Center “means we can plan on doing things we never could do before because we didn’t have the space,” Paladino said. “We were constrained.”
The project has been years in the making. The idea to build a new facility first sprouted in 2007, but those plans were put on hold by the recession that soon followed.
When Father Panthananickal was appointed pastor of St. Anthony in 2013, parishioners approached him about reviving the effort to expand. A former school principal for more than 20 years in his native India, “I know the challenge of construction,” Father Panthananickal said. “But it was the will of the people.”
In 2013, Bishop Choby and the diocese gave the parish permission to begin a campaign to raise funds for the project. “The people, they all cooperated,” Father Panthananickal said.
By the end of 2015, the parish had enough money to move forward and awarded a contract in May 2016.
The parish hit the next big obstacle in April 2017 when the City of Fayetteville declined to issue a building permit because the water supply to the site was insufficient to support the fire sprinkling system.
The diocese, on behalf of the parish, sued the city in federal court, and two years later reached a settlement for the city to upgrade the water supply to the site and approve the building permit.
But the two-year delay meant that the original cost estimates were no longer valid, Paladino said. “We had to start all over.”
St. Anthony signed a new contract with Brindley Construction in June 2019, but the project immediately faced new obstacles, Paladino said.
“Along the way we encountered more rock than anticipated by the initial geotechnical survey, and much harder than typical rock in this area, along with some of the wettest months ever recorded for this area,” Paladino said.
The pandemic also slowed progress, said Tim Rohling, the project manager for Brindley Construction.
The project was finally completed and the State Fire Marshal’s Office issued a certificate of occupancy in March 2021.
“Oftentimes we have big ideas, ideas that define our hopes and dreams. At times our hopes and dreams seem too big,” Paladino said. “It would have been easy to give up and walk away. But we persevered. We said yes, this is one dream, one goal, which we were not willing to give up on.”
During his remarks before the blessing, Father Panthananickal gave thanks to all the people who have supported the project, including those who didn’t live to see its completion.
“There are many who longed to see what you see, who longed to hear what you hear but they could not,” said Father Panthananickal, noting the contribution of Bishop Choby who approved the project and was present for the groundbreaking ceremony in 2016.
Father Panthananickal also thanked Bishop Spalding “who has always been supportive of this project.”
Paladino also thanked Bill Whalen, the diocese’s chief financial officer, “without whose involvement and encouragement this event would likely not be happening,” and Brindley Construction. “It was fortunate to have a Catholic in charge of the project,” Paladino said of Rohling, the project manager, who lives in Lawrenceburg. “He understood our requirements and he bent over backwards to help us when he could.”
“On behalf of the parish, bishop, we are thankful to the diocese for the financial and moral support and advice,” Father Panthananickal said. “We are really honored and blessed to have you to dedicate and bless the building today.”
Several hundred people attended the dedication, along with 12 visiting priests from parishes across the diocese.
“It took many years and great efforts and the faithful generosity of parishioners and the Diocese of Nashville in order to bring us to completion,” Paladino said. “Today we celebrate that we have finally achieved the dream for this much needed facility and achieved that long-sought goal.”