Arising out of the agricultural fields and close to the intersection of N.C. 211 and N.C. 220 in Candor is a striking Roman Catholic Church that draws parishioners from a multi-county area.
The church, which is the only Catholic Church in Montgomery County, is the talk of the region, with its towering dual rounded steeples, and a combined congregation made up of approximately 150 English-speaking worshippers and more than 800 Hispanic members.
"There isn't a church nearby that can compare to its beauty," says Laura Rolls, a member of the building committee. "It is truly a landmark, and motorists passing by on 220 stop to take pictures. It is marvelous how the firm of Miller Architects and the builders, Southside Constructors, were able to capture the spiritual essence in the architecture of Our Lady of the Americas."
Just 17 years ago, the first Catholic Hispanic mass was held in Candor, in what had been a funeral parlor. Less than a year later, the diocese of Charlotte bought a small Protestant church that had been outgrown by its members in Biscoe, and a new church named Our Lady of the Americas was dedicated. Slowly the congregation grew to about 100 English-speaking members, with an increasing number of Hispanic members.
The need for more space became evident, and the church building went through many renovations all designed to accommodate the growing numbers. With an eye to the future, the present 15-acre site was purchased in the spring of 1999. By 2002, the parish had grown tremendously, and each Sunday it became necessary to hold three Hispanic masses and one English mass. The time had come to move ahead with plans for the building of a new structure.
Father Ricardo Sanchez became parochial administrator of Our Lady of the Americas in 2001, and under his direction, a planning committee, a capital campaign and ultimately a building committee were formed. The new church, which was dedicated on June 25, is built in a traditional Mission style. Observing that the overall design of Catholic churches was significantly influenced by the Crusades in the 12th century, Ricardo notes that when members of the Christian community in Europe traveled to the Middle East and to Asia during the time of the Crusades, they brought back with them ideas that impacted the way churches were subsequently constructed -- for instance, the use of arches from Muslim mosques.
Ricardo's vision contributed to the elaborate dcor of the main sanctuary. All of the elements are in harmony with the prayers of the people, he says.
"No matter where a person looks, there is a reminder of their faith that assists in providing a truly worshipful experience," he says.
Stained glass windows in lustrous shades of royal blue form the background for a 12-foot high crucifix, handcrafted in Italy. The windows are original designs created by Lynchburg Stained Glass Company in Virginia.
Two angels that are protectors of the ark of the covenant, or the tabernacle, as written in the Old Testament, came from Italy as well. The tabernacle, which in the Catholic Church is used for keeping the reserve sacrament, was purchased in Madrid, Spain.
The altar, ambo (or pulpit) and baptismal font, all of matching design, were handcrafted in Mexico. Ringing the walls are reproductions of the Stations of the Cross. All handmade by the Icon Monastery in California, their remarkable details provide a powerful opportunity to reflect upon each individual message.
The statues that adorn the front of the sanctuary each have a particular meaning for the worshippers. Ricardo explains that the statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe that is especially appropriate to the parish was made in Italy, and other statues were crafted in Mexico.
He points to the one of St. Joseph, protector of the Holy Catholic Church, and observes that Joseph is a special saint because in life he confronted the problems that many have had to face in their daily lives; for example, moving to an unfamiliar country, learning a new language, finding work, and taking care of the needs of a family.
All of the artifacts that beautify Our Lady of the Americas church have been donated as memorials, or as gifts from various churches in the region. Donations have also come from groups within the parish itself.
Parishioners come not only from Montgomery County but also from the surrounding counties. They drive from Asheboro, Albemarle, Rockingham, and even from the Charlotte area, in addition to coming from Moore County and nearby Seven Lakes.
The wide geographic area of the parish presents its own set of challenges to Ricardo, and he relies heavily on the laity of the church to assist him in calling on the sick and to bring the Eucharist to the homebound.
Born in Costa Rica, Ricardo first came to the United States in 1981 and settled for awhile in Wilmington. He attended school there and after graduating from high school, returned to Costa Rica and started his studies for the priesthood in Costa Rico and in Mexico.
He served as an associate to a pastor in several Catholic churches before being ordained in 1999. He is beginning his fifth year at Our Lady of the Americas.
Ricardo presently officiates at three masses each Sunday morning. A 9 a.m. mass, for English-speaking parishioners and two Hispanic masses at noon and 1:45 p.m. are held.
There are two choirs -- an English-speaking adult choir, under the direction of Laura Lowder, organist, and a Hispanic choir and musicians, which includes accordions and guitars.
Before and after the Hispanic services, the expansive social hall that is part of the church building is the scene of meals cooked and served by the Hispanic women's guild.
"It is a great time for family fellowship," says Laura Rolls, "besides being a successful fundraiser for the church. The women have collected as much as $1,000 on a Sunday."
The social hall bears the name and a photo of the Rev. Gerard Clarke, the first pastor of Our Lady of the Americas.
"We want to increase our English-speaking membership, and we want people to feel welcome to come and become members of our extended family," says Rolls.
This sentiment is genuinely echoed by Ricardo.
"The doors are open for all who wish to worship with us and be a part of our community of faith," he says.
Mary Elle Hunter is a Pinehurst freelance writer. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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