• Number of Catholics in Dalton: 17,459
• Percentage of Dalton residents who are Hispanic: 48 percent
• Weekend church attendance for St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dalton: 5,000 to 7,000
• Church attendance at St. Toribio Romo in Chatsworth, Ga.: 900
• Attendance at Capilla Inspiracion, a Guatemalan mission in downtown Dalton: 200
• U.S. Catholic Church membership in 2011: 68.5 million.
• Southern Baptist Convention in 2011: 16.1 million.
Sources: Association of Religion Data Archives, U.S. Census, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, National Council of Churches
DALTON, Ga. - Two separate car dealerships failed at a concrete-and-glass showroom built in 2001 in Chatsworth, Ga.
Then Dalton's St. Joseph's Catholic Church bought the 22,000-square-foot building on U.S. Highway 76 in 2012 to establish a mission in Murray County, which had no Catholic church.
"It had 600 people the very first day, which kind of got me in trouble with the fire marshal," said the Rev. Paul Williams, the pastor who leads St. Joseph's. "It's full every Sunday."
When it came time to name the mission, the mostly Spanish-speaking parishioners picked the patron saint of Mexican immigrants, St. Toribio Romo González. He was a priest killed in 1928 when Catholics were being persecuted in Mexico. His spirit still is said to guide the impoverished across the border.
"It was almost unanimous: St. Toribio Romo," Williams said.
The former dealership features what's jokingly referred to as "Chevy Jesus," a statue of Jesus placed upon a large Chevrolet emblem in the floor, said Williams, a self-described "car guy" who drag races a 900-horsepower Chevy Camaro as a hobby.
While older mainline churches in the Bible Belt have seen their attendance fall, the Catholic church continues to grow in Georgia. Its pews are now mainly filled by Hispanics, Williams said, both newcomers to the United States and families who have been here for two or three generations.
"The Catholic Church is booming - especially in Georgia," said Williams. "There are more Hispanic than English-speaker [Catholics] in Georgia."
Georgia has more than 1 million Catholics now, he said, compared to less than 500,000 about 20 years ago.
Williams has seen the growth first-hand.
St. Joseph's has between 5,000 and 7,000 people come every weekend to the five Spanish and two English Masses held at its campus built in 2000 in a leafy, upscale Dalton neighborhood.
"Every day, there's something going on in this church," said Miguel Trivino, 37, a corporate safety manager for Shaw Industries who attended a noon weekday Mass last week.
"The Hispanic community here in Dalton, it's a growing community," said Trivino, who followed all that was said and sung during Mass using an app on his smart phone.
A third priest is due to start working soon alongside Williams and Padre Duvan Gonzales. All three priests speak Spanish and English.
Last year, St. Joseph's converted an old funeral home in downtown Dalton into a mission that serves some 200 Guatemalans who have trouble traveling to the main church.
Williams said St. Joseph's is trying to be a church that goes to where the people are. That's been a theme of Pope Francis, he said. Every time the church does so, it gains new members, Williams said. It's not siphoning worshipers from its main campus.
"We're not robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said.
Williams wants to focus on the church's youth. He has architectural drawings displayed in his office for two additional buildings for classrooms and youth services at St. Joseph's main campus. He hopes to get construction started in 2015.
"The church is open and welcome to children," Williams said, including the very youngest. "You come to Mass, and guess what? There's children crying."
Williams, who studied computer science at Georgia Tech and worked in the fighter jet program at General Dynamics before entering the priesthood, said many of St. Joseph's youths have their sights on college, including prestigious institutions such as the University of Georgia and Harvard.
"I'd like to see Northwest Georgia expand its opportunities," Williams said. "What's going to attract them to come back to Dalton? They don't need to take their parents' jobs in the factory."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.