St. Toribio Romo Gonzalez — or St. Romo — is a well-known figure in Mexican folklore who is said to have appeared to the aid of immigrants dying of hunger and thirst long after his death in 1928.
A martyr from early 20th century Mexico who is associated today with defending religious freedom, the legendary Catholic priest is quickly emerging as an icon of the immigration movement.
He’s also the Catholic saint for which a new mission in Chatsworth is named. The mission, an outreach of Dalton-based St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, drew 600 people the first day mass was held in November in a Chatsworth building at 2402 Highway 76 that was once a Chevrolet dealership.
Father Paul Williams, pastor of St. Joseph’s and the new mission, said the idea for the mission began several years ago. For at least 10 years, there has been a Catholic ministry in Murray County, he said. It began with a priest going out to the area “every once in a while” to celebrate with small groups. The ministry eventually moved from a half trailer at the Mountain Creek Academy campus in Eton where perhaps 50 people could fit inside to a double-wide trailer about three years ago in Crandall where about 200 congregants worshipped.
That population continued to grow as about 40 children each year celebrated first communion — something Williams said not even some of the larger Atlanta parishes achieve. As the mission grew, a parishioner one day mentioned to him the Chevrolet dealership campus was for sale. Williams looked into it, and the congregation moved in on Nov. 13.
It kept the name St. Romo’s, which the people had chosen in 2010.
“They chose it because the congregation is 90 percent immigrant, Hispanic, and many of them are from the part of Mexico where St. Romo was from,” Williams said. “St. Romo was a martyr during the Cristero wars in Mexico in the 1920s. He was martyred Feb. 25, 1928. The people here chose him because he has become in the popular mind a patron saint of immigrants into the United States.”
Williams said many of the congregants at the Chatsworth mission are poor and the mission is designed to serve them. Many church members there simply weren’t able to practice their faith before the mission expanded, he said. While there’s room at St. Joseph’s where there wasn’t room in the double-wide trailer in Crandall, many of Murray County’s Catholics had difficulty getting to Dalton because of work schedules, lack of transportation and other poverty-related factors, Williams said.
“The (Catholic theology of) preferential option for the poor is recognizing that Christ basically said we will be judged on how we treat the most needy among us,” Williams said. “That’s really what the mission in Murray County was all about, reaching out to poor immigrants who are disproportionately affected by poverty.”
There are also people who had been attending St. Joseph’s but decided to come to St. Romo’s because it was more convenient for them. Among the several masses, there is a 9:30 a.m. English mass at St. Joseph’s and an 11:30 a.m. mass in Spanish every Sunday. At St. Romo’s the schedules for the English and Spanish masses are reversed. About 60 people come to the English service in Chatsworth.
Associate pastor Duvan Gonzalez, a native of Colombia who was ordained in Georgia, said it’s important for people to be able to celebrate mass in their own language.
“We have a large Hispanic community among us,” he said. “(Church members) are very excited about God. They are very happy in their future. The community is growing and growing, and we need to be prepared.”
Capilla Inspiracion (Inspiration Chapel)
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church’s second mission opened in February on Hamilton Street in the old Ponders Funeral Home location.
It serves between 150 and 200 people.
Father Paul Williams said the mission grew out of a prayer group of mostly Guatemalan immigrants who had been meeting on their own for several years. The first mass was held on Ash Wednesday, and there are now weekly masses there at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays.
The mission was designed to serve the needs of the people in that area, many of whom lack cars and could attend only by walking, he said.
“This is another outreach to the most needy amongst us,” Williams said.