Columbus church finds unique way to fill its pews

Pastor Robert Schlageter was heartbroken when he looked out at row after row of empty pews at St. Anne Catholic Church in Columbus.

The church, like others in the Diocese of Savannah, were no longer holding in-person services because of the spread of the coronavirus.

The first service sans parishioners was “shocking,” said Schlageter, pastor of the 1,500-member congregation. “It was so disconcerting because I never thought we’d get to the day when we’d be praying the mass without our people. We looked out in the congregation and there was no one there. It was really sad.”

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So, the friars came up with a way to still see the faces of their beloved congregation and keep the connection.

Borrowing an idea from a priest in Italy, they asked students at the St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School and members of the church to send their photos. The response was overwhelming.

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More than 650 people emailed photos, including some who heard about the project and don’t even attend St. Anne.

Now, “the church is almost filling up,” said a very happy Schlageter. “Now we we look out we see their faces. For a Catholic priest, obviously, we have our families but our people are our families, too.”

Micki Kaye was thrilled about the project and planned to send her photo as soon as possible.

Kaye, who has been a member for about three years, said she was feeling separated from her parish. “My heart was so full of joy. This has to be divinely inspired, for sure.

She noticed a photo of her granddaughter in the church.

“This is where faith comes in, when you can elevate a situation that has so much worry, so much sadness and so much separation into something that has so much joy."

The friars at St. Anne are members of the same order, the Conventual Franciscan Friars, as Archbishop Gregory John Hartmayer, who will lead the Atlanta archdiocese.

He doesn’t know how long the church will not have in-person mass, but he thinks this experience could be a meaningful one for the community.

“It’s teaching all of us how much we mean to each other.”