Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series examining major places of worship in Buckhead. The remainder of the article will run in our next edition, Aug. 22.
By Amy Wenk
Within about a 3-mile radius, Buckhead offers some of the largest and most historic places of worship in Atlanta. Each weekend, streets such as Peachtree and Roswell roads are jammed with cars as worshippers attend their chosen services.
At the intersection of Peachtree and Wesley roads, nicknamed “Jesus Junction,” is the Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King, which boasts more than 200 ministries and 5,300-plus parishioners.
Also at Jesus Junction are the Cathedral of St. Philip, which has one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country, and Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church, which has around 3,000 members.
“One of the reasons this church is strong is because Buckhead is a strong community,” said Second-Ponce Senior Pastor David Sapp. “It has been a blessing to us.”
Up the street, Peachtree Presbyterian Church, off Roswell Road, has the largest Presbyterian congregation in the nation with 8,750 members.
Nearby, Peachtree Road United Methodist is home to about 5,800 worshippers.
Wieuca Road Baptist, a little farther up Peachtree, attracts thousands of people each Sunday with its strategic location across from Phipps Plaza.
“We like to say we are at the corner of Peachtree Road and the world,” Wieuca Road Senior Pastor Michael Tutterow said. “The world is literally at our doorstep.”
On the western side of Buckhead, Ahavath Achim Synagogue, on Peachtree Battle Avenue at Northside Drive, houses the third-largest Conservative Jewish congregation in the country and is the second-oldest congregation in Atlanta.
Here is a closer look at these unique places of worship, all in the heart and soul of Buckhead.
Cathedral of Philip
With its impressive architecture and stature, perched high upon a hill at the corner of Andrews Drive and Peachtree Road, the Cathedral of St. Philip is a Buckhead landmark.
“We are the oldest Episcopal church in Atlanta,” said the Very Rev. Sam Candler, the dean of the cathedral the past nine years. “We were started in 1846.”
The original site for St. Philip’s was across from the state Capitol, on the corner of what is now Washington Street and Martin Luther King Drive. By 1875, it grew to be the largest Episcopal church in Georgia, and it was named the cathedral of the Diocese of Atlanta in 1907.
St. Philip’s relocated in 1933 to its present site at 2744 Peachtree Road, where a gray wooden structure was erected. The Mikell Chapel was completed in 1947, and the grand cathedral proper, decorated with ornate stained glass and woodwork, was finished in 1962.
Today, the congregation has 6,000 to 6,300 active participants, Candler said. Eight services, each with a unique style of worship, are held in five chapels each Sunday.
“The most important thing we do is bless others in the name of a gracious God,” Candler said.
The first Sunday in October, members bring pets of all kinds to be blessed. Candler said he has blessed hundreds of dogs and cats, as well as more unusual pets like snakes and hermit crabs.
In addition, the church blesses all the runners of the Peachtree Road Race.
“I stand out on Peachtree Road every Fourth of July morning and bless about 5,500 people,” Candler said. “I feel like those 5,500 people are of every shape, size and religion in America, so if I blessed all those people, I have blessed America.”
Another popular ministry of the church is the Cathedral Farmer’s Market, held each Saturday in the parking lot. Every week from May to October, around 800 people turn out to purchase produce from local farmers.
“The good thing about it is it’s not just for church members; the whole neighborhood is here,” Candler said. “That is the old character of cathedrals in the Middle Ages. They were places where the whole village, the whole community, came together for all sorts of needs.”
Second-Ponce de Leon
Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church is on Peachtree Road, but as its name suggests, its origins were at another location.
The congregation, which now has around 3,000 members, was formed in the merger of two churches in 1932: Ponce de Leon Avenue Baptist Church and Second Baptist Church, founded in 1854 near the state Capitol.
“There has been this emphasis on unity throughout the history of the church,” said the senior pastor for nine years, David Sapp. “That has been a value of this congregation, to be inclusive of a lot of different kinds of people.”
One of the ways Second-Ponce reaches those people is through its Family Life Center, a fitness and recreation center open to community. The 70,000-square-foot facility sees 10,000 visits a month and is a “staple in the Buckhead community,” Sapp said. The 2,000 members enjoy the indoor pool, racquetball courts, cardio room, weights and more.
“That turns into quite a ministry, an opportunity to interface with people beyond our immediate congregation,” he said.
Television also enhances the church’s ministry. Every Sunday, Second-Ponce airs its service on Atlanta Interfaith Broadcasters at 11 a.m.
“The first face ever seen on television in Atlanta was the pastor of this church,” Sapp said. “When WSB came on the air, they started with the Morning Devotion that was given by one of my predecessors,” Monroe F. Swilley, Jr.
“Television turns into a pastoral kind of ministry that I really never envisioned. During a time of illness or trauma, when they can’t go to church, then we become their church. It is a very rewarding ministry,” Sapp said.
The church started the Atlanta Community Ministries in 1996. It now consists of 29 volunteer-led ministries with 700 volunteers from more than 60 churches.
Second-Ponce reaches outside Atlanta as well. The past three years the congregation has maintained a partnership with Sichuan province in China.
Additionally, a 60-person mission team recently raised a church from its foundation in three days in Shelbyville, Ky. Second-Ponce takes on a project like that every summer to assist promising congregations that otherwise could not afford a building.
Cathedral of Christ the King
The Cathedral of Christ the King, on Peachtree Road between Peachtree Way and East Wesley Road, is in almost constant use during the week.
“People can come pray 24/7,” said Monsignor Thomas Kenny, pastor since 1965. “There is something for everyone to do in terms of groups and ministries.”
The cathedral, with 5,300 registered families, holds 12 services each week, including a traditional Mass and Spanish and contemporary services. Each Sunday, around 4,000 people attend a service in the 650-seat cathedral, which was constructed in the French Gothic style.
“It is special in that there is a wide variety of services,” Kenny said. “It gives a wide selection for the people.”
Christ the King is home to more than 120 groups and organizations. It has 14 women’s circles and a variety of groups for singles, young couples and men.
The congregation is also very active in outreach ministries like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which assists the needy with food, shelter, clothing and medical care; Buckhead Christian Ministries; Habitat for Humanity; and Mustard Seed Mission Trips, which helps disadvantaged children in Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe.
In addition, on the premises is the Christ the King School, a private K-8 institution founded in 1937 by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. Around 550 students attend the school, which was named a National Blue Ribbon School in 2007.
But what makes the cathedral a unique place, Kenny said, is that it is the site of the chair of Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory.
Founded in 1936, the church was quickly elevated to co-cathedral status in 1937 when Pope Pius XI issued a proclamation changing the Diocese of Savannah, which was organized in 1850, to the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta.
In 1956, the separate Diocese of Atlanta was created, elevating the parish to cathedral status. Now Christ the King is the mother church of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. The archdiocese, formed in 1962, encompasses 21,445 square miles in north Georgia.
Ahavath Achim Synagogue
Located at 600 Peachtree Battle Ave., Ahavath Achim Synagogue has one of the largest Conservative Jewish congregations, with around 1,200 households or close to 3,000 members.
“We are celebrating our 120th year right now,” said Rabbi Neil Sandler, who has been at the synagogue four years. “We are certainly one of the older congregations in Atlanta.”
The congregation, whose name means brotherly love, was founded as an Orthodox synagogue in 1887 and first met in a small room on Gilmer Street.
A building was erected on Washington Street in 1920 near where Turner Field is today. At the time, about 200 families were members. In 1940, when the congregation grew to 800 families, an educational center was built at 10th Street.
The synagogue moved to its current location in 1958.
“The location has been very significant and very positive in several ways,” Sandler said.
Over the years, the synagogue has attracted leading rabbis, including Harry Epstein, founder of The Epstein School. Epstein served the congregation for 54 years, beginning in 1928, and led the transition to Judaism’s Conservative movement.
The 3,000-seat sanctuary often houses community events.
“We have had some very, very important congregational, intra-Jewish and interfaith programming,” Sandler said. “It is a landmark, quite frankly, in that regard.”
Each year the synagogue hosts the Leo & Berry Eizenstat Memorial Lecture, established by member Stuart Eizenstat in honor of his father and uncle. Eizenstat served as chief White House domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and U.S. ambassador to the European Union and deputy secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration. The lecture series has welcomed such speakers as former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ahavath Achim also is accommodating The Suzuki School, a private academic preschool based in Buckhead. The institution is renting out a large portion of the education floor of the synagogue and will have around 200 children on the premises.
“What is really unique about this congregation right now is the work of renewal that we are in the midst of doing,” Sandler said.
In that regard, the synagogue offers a monthly alternative Friday-night service called AAbsolut Shabbat, which is held in the courtyard and incorporates music and spirituality.
“It has become an important piece of the life of this congregation,” Sandler said. “This is a congregation that is really working very much at renewing its life and projecting that to the community at large.”