OAKWOOD, GA – For the more than one hundred who gathered October 22 for the last service at St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church it was a time for shared tears, laughter, warm embraces, and stories about the 25-year-old parish.
The Rev. Bill Combs, rector of St. Gabriel’s from 2007 until 2015, told those gathered that he had been praying and thinking about the parish during a recent sabbatical in Scotland.
“There was a tree in a school yard that reminded me of St. Gabriel’s,” Combs said. “The tree was only about 20 feet tall, but it was 60 feet across with the limbs at the bottom trimmed so that the little ones could climb up into them and play.”
“If the Scottish bureau of tree heights ranked the tree it wouldn’t be very high on the list, and they would miss the reach and footholds and handholds and a drip line that nourishes the root system. That’s my experience of St. Gabriel’s – it’s reach and welcome.”
The Rev. Peter Wallace, St. Gabriel’s priest from 2014 until 2016, called the gathering “sad but inspiring.”
“I went there newly ordained, and they made me a priest,” Wallace wrote on his Facebook feed. “A truly warm and welcoming parish. But now it is time to scatter the love near and far as the church closes.
“Bishop Rob Wright presided over a wonderful service with lots of stories and memories shared. So many dear friends there! May God be with them all as they move forward to new places of worship and service,” Wallace wrote.
Bishop Wright acknowledged to those attending the service that the decision to close was a “gut punch” for many of them.
“You may need to say something hard. So, catch me in the parking lot if you need to. OK? This isn’t about us; it isn’t about you. Your feelings are legitimate, and I affirm them. I’ll hug anybody who wants a hug.”
Reflecting on the parish’s namesake Wright said in scripture Gabriel “doesn’t stay in one place long.
“He comes alongside, listens, whispers God’s audacious, challenging message and then goes his way and people are left with a choice. And that’s where we are now as we conclude this space. Was this just a one off, geographically bound thing that happened here or did you see something here, did you feel something here, did you experience something here that now God needs in another place? The choice is yours.
“It doesn’t discount what happened here. What happened here couldn’t go on, but in God’s economy God is a generative god and how many more people need to feel what some of y’all have felt? And how many more of our churches – some represented here today – need you to come with your experience of what a church can be; warm, welcoming, local, and international.
“The Kingdom of God is bigger than any of your pains, any of my pains. The Kingdom of God needs people who can process and move through and give the blessing of their insight that’s hard won to the world.
“What you have experienced has been a great grace; growing up people. I love the image, handholds, and drip line. You have done things you can’t even account for. Worlds were born into people in difficult times in this place. Sung into them. You have no clue what God has done for you. You have only a glimpse. Is God done? Come on. You know God’s not done. So, while we grieve today. Lay beside the grief the charge. As for thee, my beloved people. Having been given this immense gift of a glimpse of what a little piece of the beloved community will look like. Go replicate. Go do it in other places. Give it a home.”
Memories shared by those at the service ranged from regret that it’s time had run out to those who recalled its impact on family, friends, and fellow congregants to those who remembered St. Gabriel’s being the first place they had been truly welcome.
Six months before the closing service the members of St. Gabriel’s, past and present, gathered for a service and picnic to celebrate the church’s 25th anniversary. It was a time to celebrate the past and brace for what was coming.
St. Gabriel’s began with high hopes. When formed in May 1998, it was the only Episcopal Church in the once rural, then suburbanizing southern part of Hall County. Oakwood was chosen because it was at the center of growth, spurred by the relative proximity to Atlanta and the recreational opportunities provided by nearby Lake Sidney Lanier.
The new church was named for Gabriel, the archangel with the power to announce God’s will to the world. The choice seemed appropriate. By January of 1999, St. Gabriel’s was self-supporting. The Reverend Solace M. “Mike” Freeman became its first rector, during a period of steady growth.
In 2003, St. Gabriel’s parishioners built a church school classroom building, enabling the parish to expand its Christian Education program.
After Freeman’s retirement in 2006, the church was led by Interim Rector The Rev. Linda Baker Pineo, followed by Rev. Combs. Although it had established roots the young startup was hard hit by the succession of schisms eating away at the Episcopal Church and the nation’s increasing secularization.
By the Spring of 2015, Rev. Combs and the vestry realized that the church was no longer able to support a full-time priest.
Two interim priests served St. Gabriel’s until 2018 by which time its dwindling resources forced the church to turn to retired priests to “cover the bases.”
In 2018, retired priest The Rev. Robert “Bob” Fessler agreed to begin serving St. Gabriel’s as a supply priest, assisted by Deacon Sue Huff, herself a retired member of clergy and another member The Rev. Don Harrison, also retired.
The Diocese of Atlanta is the eighth largest of the Episcopal Church’s 110 dioceses. After the closing of St. Gabriel’s the diocese has 120 worshiping communities in Middle and North Georgia.