You can’t swing a cat by the tail and not hit a church in Atlanta. Or so I’ve been told. Walking around one of the largest cities in the U.S. Southeast, I found more than a kernel of truth in that statement. Although the Civil War took out those built beforehand, the churches that rose up after 1865—and there are plenty of them—populate the city’s urban landscape in staggering numbers, and impressive beauty. These are my favorites.
#1 All Saints’ Episcopal Church
I emerged from Atlanta’s uncrowded subway, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, locally just plain MARTA, and found my destination directly across the street. All Saints’ Episcopal Church comprises an entire campus, with three halls, a community center, a children’s center, a playground, a lovely courtyard, and, of course, the church. Completed in 1908 and constructed with attractive sandstone in the Gothic style, the church features a soaring spire, now turned a verdigris green with a herringbone pattern. I had scheduled an appointment for the staff to open the church for me to take a look, and they very politely accommodated me. Left by myself to wander around, I marveled at the vast interior. With no side aisles, the nave is a tremendous, open space, with a phenomenal wood slanted ceiling with arches and brackets. The All Saints’ seal—the cross and the crown symbolizing the feast of All Saints, and a phoenix representing both the resurrection and the city of Atlanta—is stenciled in gold on the vibrant red walls of the chancel and apse. Organ pipes, topped with angels blowing trumpets, flank the main, massive window above the main entrance, with each panel depicting a small Biblical scene. Break out the binoculars to see, for instance, the Annunciation or the Nativity, or the symbols for the four evangelists. Gorgeous Tiffany windows unfold Christ’s life in chronological order, while smaller windows depict Noah’s Ark on the flood waters, with a rainbow arcing above it. In a connected chapel, large enough to be a small church in and of itself, I found more stained-glass windows: Joseph’s multicolored robe, Moses holding the Commandments with lightning bolts above his head, Noah and his ark with pairs of giraffes and kangaroos, and one figure I had never seen in a church before—Mother Teresa, dressed in her traditional white robe with blue trim.
#2 St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
The large brick English Gothic building from 1906 bears a deceptive little secret: The connected bell tower wasn’t added until 2000, and it blends seamlessly with the rest of the church and its wonderful arcade on the side. Unfortunately, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church wasn’t open. Undeterred, I managed to talk my way in with the accommodating office staff. That little effort paid off in big ways. The massive interior features a slanted ceiling with formidable wood cross beams. The mural above the altar, titled Christ as the Good Shepherd, was commissioned from the muralist for a bargain price, which was covered by the fundraising efforts of the women of the church. Above all else, St. Luke’s is rightly renowned for its magnificent stained-glass windows, made in Munich, London, and Philadelphia. On both sides, smaller windows at the ground level depict such Old Testament figures as Adam (without Eve, but with a giraffe and an elephant). Above them, huge soaring windows portray the New Testament, including the busy Nativity scene, with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, three Wise Men, turtle doves, and the Star of Bethlehem; the Crucifixion; and the empty tomb scene, with three empty crosses in the background. My favorite was the Last Supper window. Jesus is off center, shifted toward the left, with six of the apostles. The other six occupy the right side of the table, including Judas, looking away from Christ, holding his money bag, with his hand cupping his chin in deep thought (either thinking about his regrets or ruminating on how to betray his Lord), and the only one without a halo. Particularly noteworthy is his hair. Judas is a full-blown redhead, a throwback to the stereotypes of redheads as untrustworthy, evil, and in cahoots with the devil.
#3 Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
With so much of Atlanta obliterated during the Civil War, you simply can’t go back very far to see its past. The Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is just about as good as it gets, even though it was completed only in 1873, making it the second-oldest structure in downtown Atlanta and the city’s oldest Catholic church. It replaced the original wood-frame structure that, although damaged during the war, managed to survive, and served as temporarily housing for residents who had fled the city and returned to find their homes destroyed. Resting on a stone base, the present building is a brick beauty with two uneven towers, the taller one, by one story, occupying the dominant corner position. Inside, there’s a fine pietà and painted Stations of the Cross. The best part is above. On the sloped ceiling, a local Georgian artist painted tremendous images of the 12 disciples, each in his own trefoil. Hunt for your favorite, whether it’s, for instance, St. Andrew holding a fish (he’s the patron saint of fisherman) or St. Thomas holding a carpenter square (he’s the patron saint of carpenters, architects, and masons).
#4 Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Dedicated in 1898, consecrated in 1920, and elevated to its current basilica status in 2010, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus makes a noticeable appearance in downtown Atlanta, with its bold red brick and terra cotta façade, twin octagonal towers (at 137’ high) with conical roofs topped by crosses, rounded arches, and rose window. Inside, two rows of columns and arches march down the nave toward the triumphal arch, complete with five symbols—one for Christ, the others for the four evangelists. In the sanctuary, a life-sized crucifix stands under the dome of the apse, painted with the figure of Christ, His Sacred Heart aglow as He stands on a globe within a mandorla and flanked by two angels with fantastic wings, one bearing the crown of glory, the other holding the crown of thorns. At the opposite end, behind me, the pipes of the organ flare out from the rose window, with the Sacred Heart in the central panel. Along the side aisles, 14 stained-glass windows, made in Munich and installed in 1902, depict key moments in Jesus’ life, including the Wedding Feast at Cana, the Last Supper (sans Judas), and the Crucifixion. Other objects that caught my attention included the Philippine mahogany confessionals, brass kneelers, intricately detailed brass pulpit, Victorian candelabra flanking the altar, and the deliciously elaborate baptismal font. Everything combines to form a wonderful spiritual space that continues to attract many visitors, including Mother Teresa in the 1990s.
#5 First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta
I was on my way to the High Museum of Art when, next to it, I stumbled upon the First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta. Founded in 1848 as the first Presbyterian house of worship in Atlanta (for a total of 19 Presbyterians), the church’s current structure was completed in 1919. One century and one year later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This lovely Late Gothic Revival–style church, with a separate bell tower, makes heavy and wonderful use of stone as the primary building material, and also incorporates pointed arches, window tracery, and crenellation. From the outside, I picked up on the bold blues in the stained-glass window above the main entrance, placed within an ogee arch. Depicting the Second Coming, it was added to the church in 1948 and features Christ returning to earth from heaven in an aura of light and being welcomed by families. This is just one of 20 magnificent stained-glass windows in the church (seven by Tiffany), including the Abrahamic Covenant Window, the Passion Window, and the Martyrs Window, which has as its main image the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, being stoned to death. From the start, First Presbyterian, which can host 2,000 people, has been making history. Since 1922, it has been operating a religious radio broadcast (the oldest continuous running one in the world). It was the first church in Atlanta to broadcast its services on television, and, founded 70 years ago, its preschool is the longest continually running one in the Southeast.
- St. Mark United Methodist Church (1903)
- Central Presbyterian Church (1885)
- First Church of Christ Scientist (1914)
- Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer (1952)
- Atlanta First United Methodist Church (1903)
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