Sisters’ Appreciation: Atlanta Catholics Honor Religious With Heartwarming Annual Tribute

Creative events show gratitude for consecrated life.

Auxiliary Bishop John Tran celebrated Mass and joined the sisters and lay guests for dinner at a local Jesuit retreat house recently.
Auxiliary Bishop John Tran celebrated Mass and joined the sisters and lay guests for dinner at a local Jesuit retreat house recently. (photo: Courtesy of Bill Spalding)

For almost 30 years, Bill Spalding, a Catholic businessman from Atlanta, has planned annual celebrations for religious sisters living in the archdiocese. 

After attending a luncheon to honor religious sisters in the area in the mid-1990s, he was inspired to go above and beyond for future events in recognition of the sisters’ response to God’s call to religious life. Since then, Spalding’s yearly events have become a beloved tradition for Atlanta Catholics. 

“I wanted to find a way to offer them a variety of experiences that would be exciting and uplifting as a way for all of us to say ‘thank you,’” he told the Register. 

He volunteered to host the following year’s event for the sisters and began to dream big. 

During his first year organizing the event, Atlanta’s High Museum of Art announced a special exhibit of Russian art that had never been shown abroad. Spalding called the museum, purchased tickets to view the exhibit, arranged for a lecture from a docent, and planned a catered lunch for the sisters. 

“To my delight, when I showed up that day to get things set up, there was already a line of sisters out the door half an hour early,” Spalding said. “It just touched my heart.” 

After spending the day at the museum, one sister approached Spalding. 

She told him that she had grown up in Russia and had visited the art exhibit as a teenager. When the sister left her home country, she never expected to see that art again. 

“That told me everything I needed to know,” Spalding said. 

“If I touch just one sister like that each time we do something like this, then it’s worth it. Years later, that still warms my heart.” 

Buoyed by the success of the first event, Spalding began planning another event for the following year. The local chapter of the Serra Club, an organization of Catholic laypeople dedicated to supporting religious vocations, has aided Spalding’s work. Each year, Serra Club member Hal Lamb coordinates with the bishop’s office and diocese to ensure that Mass is celebrated during the event. 

Spalding also began inviting local Catholic families and Catholic businesspeople to attend the events and celebrate the sisters. 

Through the generous support of these laypeople, Spalding was able to establish a successful annual event to show appreciation for the sisters. 

In the decades since his first event, Spalding has enjoyed dreaming up creative events designed to shower love and appreciation on the sisters. He often purchases gifts, like jigsaw puzzles, wine or desserts, from Catholic-owned businesses for the sisters, too. 

One year, Spalding organized a visit to the Atlanta Botanical Garden so that the sisters could enjoy a new art installation by a world-famous glass blower. 

Another year, he catered a dinner on top of a restaurant overlooking the Christmas light show at the botanical garden. 

During that dinner, a sister told him that she and two other sisters had heard about the light show when it had been announced and hoped to see it. They had pooled their money but had only $10 between them. “She said, ‘We never could have come otherwise,’” Spalding recounted to the Register. 

“I saw them later, and they were just joyful — taking pictures and giggling and having the best time. To give them a couple of hours like that in return for how hard they work for us is a wonderful thing.” 

Spalding sees some of the events as opportunities for evangelization. He was especially struck by the special treatment the sisters received upon visiting the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 

“When the sisters wear their habits in public, everybody is so respectful to them,” he said. “You could see the attitude and the appreciation that people have for a sister and what she stands for.”

This past fall, since many attendees are elderly, he arranged for overnight accommodations at a retreat house so that they wouldn’t have to drive home in the dark after Mass and a special dinner. 

“They had a ball,” he said. 

Spalding invited Auxiliary Bishop John Tran, who was installed as an auxiliary bishop for the Atlanta Archdiocese in January 2023, to celebrate Mass and join the sisters and lay guests for dinner. 

“[It] was a wonderful experience and opportunity to share a meal with the religious sisters,” Bishop Tran told the Register. 

Atlanta Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Shlesinger has also attended Spalding’s events in the past. 

Sisters' appreciation 2
Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Shlesinger with the sisters and lay guests at a local Jesuit retreat house(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Spalding)

“I am most grateful that I have had an opportunity to show gratitude to the women religious at such an event sponsored by Mr. Spalding,” he said. 

“Women religious have nurtured me as both a priest and bishop and have helped fill a void when working with clergy as the director of priest personnel in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” Bishop Shlesinger told the Register. 

“I can never underestimate the value of their feminine genius, capacity for leadership and nurturing.”

Spalding told the Register that he loves planning the yearly celebrations and is especially grateful for the friendships that he has developed with the sisters who attend. 

“I wanted to show them that a lot of people love and care about them,” he said.

Now, with approximately 30 sisters from the Atlanta Archdiocese in attendance each year, plus around 30 lay Catholics, Spalding’s vision continues to grow with each event.