As Sandy Springs’ Highpoint Episcopal Community Church heads toward its final Sunday service Jan. 12, its vicar says the building could return to religious use – possibly as another church — and that the property would be sold only as a “worst-case scenario.”
“I know there’s a lot of interest internally in this property,” said Rev. Lang Lowrey, who is vicar of the shuttering Highpoint congregation and a top advisor to the Atlanta bishop and the national Episcopal Church on real estate developments. “…Probably by summer we’ll have decided the direction we want to go, but we’re hopeful we have a use ourselves… [In the] worst-case scenario, we decide to sell.”
The church has operated for more than 50 years at a 7.5-acre property at 4945 High Point Road. The Highpoint congregation is dissolving in the wake of a four-year effort to rebrand and resurrect the former Church of the Atonement amid dwindling attendance.
Lowrey praised the congregation and former parson Rev. Ruth Pattison for doubling active membership to about 40. But that was not enough in the Episcopal system, where congregations are expected to raise their own operating funds.
“I wish all churches or synagogues had a community like that,” Lowrey said. “They really did succeed… but sometimes people succeed in their mission and don’t succeed financially.”
Lowrey said he could not reveal exactly how much it costs to operate the Highpoint complex, “I would tell you it’s six digits or more. Forty people just couldn’t shoulder the financial cost of a building that’s 50 years old… Literally as we were closing, the HVAC went out and it’s another $10,000.”
The Buckhead-based Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Lowrey said, gave Highpoint’s congregation the option to stay together as a kind of “little church within a church” at one of the area’s larger churches: Holy Innocents’ in Sandy Springs, St. Dunstan’s in Buckhead or St. Martin in the Fields in Brookhaven. Highpoint declined, he said, while a Hispanic congregation that used the same building, Our Lady of Guadalupe, did choose to move to Holy Innocents’.
The future of the Highpoint property could involve other Episcopal programs – maybe even expansions of those larger churches, Lowrey said. In early discussions, he said, “we have other entities within our Episcopal sphere who are very interested in it.”
“We value the property. We have a memorial garden there we’re dedicated to,” Lowrey said. According to church member Duffy Hickey, that garden is where a number of parishioners’ ashes are buried.
Lowrey said the diocese will take about 90 days to review possible Episcopal reuses of the church property, with deeper reviews extending into June if necessary. If internal uses don’t work out, he said, the diocese would consider uses by other religious organizations.
The Congregation Beth Tefillah synagogue is a close neighbor on High Point Road. Adon Solomon, co-president of the synagogue’s board of directors, declined comment on possible interest in the church property beyond saying there have been no discussions.
Only if the internal and external religious-use options fail would the diocese put the property on the market, Lowrey said.
In the meantime, the church complex remains open for use by community organizations. Some of them, such as the High Point Civic Association, are already seeking new locations due to the uncertainty of the property’s future. But Lowrey emphasized that none are required to leave at this point and may be able to stay, depending on the future use. One change is that the church will no longer be a Fulton County polling place for the immediate future, because that required a two-year commitment, Lowrey said.