In the 1990s, a priest from St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church was having dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Sandy Springs. The priest tried to chat with a waiter in Spanish, but the waiter said he was from Brazil and spoke Portuguese.
So the priest, the Rev. Jack Vessels, switched to Portuguese.
A couple of days later, he got phone calls asking if he could conduct a Mass in Portuguese for a group of Brazilians. “I said, ‘Yes, sure,’” he explains on the church’s website.
That first service was in October 1997. The idea of holding services in Portuguese caught on. Soon St. Jude was hosting monthly Masses for Brazilians living in metro Atlanta.
It now conducts weekly Masses in Portuguese that attract 250 to 300 celebrants, church representatives say, and a Marietta church hosts two additional Portuguese services each week. Members of the Brazilian community at St. Jude say the church has 300 Brazilian families among its members.
“The church is really important for us,” said church member Rosana Szvarca. “For us, the church is like a family. It’s more than a place to worship God, it’s like a family. … We can worship God, but we can also have a cultural feast. We can have something cultural from Brazil.”
Brazilians gather on Sunday nights at the Sandy Springs church, located at the intersection of Spalding and Glenridge drives, to socialize, conduct classes and maybe play a little soccer as well as attend Mass, said the Rev. Bob Riddett, deacon at St. Jude, who said recent estimates put the Brazilian population in metro Atlanta at about 40,000.
“On Sunday nights, they come together as a community,” he said. “They have regular social events. They know how to party.”
That spirit spills over in the services conducted for Brazilians, Riddett said. Where American Catholics usually are reserved during services, he said, Brazilians often let their feelings show.
The Rev. Rosenilton Araujo, known as Father Roger, is the priest to the metro Atlanta Brazilian community and agrees that his countrymen tend to be more demonstrative during services. “We celebrate with more emotions,” he said.
Araujo is from Brasilia, Brazil’s capital. He is trained as a journalist and is part of a Catholic community in Brazil known as Cancao Nova, or “new song,” he said. There, he worked with television shows and multi-media broadcasts put together through the church. He conducted interviews, he said. There was a huge audience for the work. Brazil has the fifth-largest Catholic population in the world, Riddett said.
Araujo was posted to metro Atlanta in 2008. He had never worked as a parish priest, he said, and did not speak English when he arrived. Now he conducts the three Portuguese Masses each week.
“I love working with the people,” he said. “I love the communication. I know the needs of these people.”
Does he miss the microphone? “I use a microphone in the church,” he said, smiling broadly.
One thing he especially enjoys, he said, is living with four other priests in the rectory at St. Jude. One priest is Irish, one Mexican, one Polish and one American. “For me, it is very important living together,” he said. “The experience is very important…. Just experiencing the language, the other cultures. In Brazil, I didn’t have the same experience.”
That multi-cultural mix is important to others at St. Jude, too. The church offers services in Spanish and English as well as Portuguese and tries to encourage its various groups to learn from and about one another. The church, Szvarca said, has conducted some special celebrations in all three languages.
“We try to integrate,” Riddet said, “but we don’t want to lose the cultures.”