By MICHAEL ALEXANDER and ANDREW NELSON, Georgia Bulletin Staff (Photos by Michael Alexander, Text by Andrew Nelson | Published March 15, 2012
The Gothic Cathedral of Christ the King overlooks the famed Peachtree Road of Atlanta. Beneath its spires, generations of Catholics in the archdiocese have experienced the life cycle of their faith from joyous baptisms as holy water touches the foreheads of youngsters to tearful funerals as Catholics pray for their beloved dead.
For 75 years, this mother church of the archdiocese has drawn Catholics into its faith life. It is one of the largest parishes in the Atlanta Archdiocese, with more than 4,500 registered families. A dozen times a weekend, Catholics gather here for the celebration of Mass.
Life and activities go on here around the clock, from the early morning car pool drop-off for the hundreds of Christ the King School students and Bible study to people in quiet prayer in front of the Eucharist in an adoration chapel that has been open day and night for some 18 years.
And, in addition to this vibrant life, with 100 or so parish ministries, it is the place where the archdiocese gathers for its most joyful and solemn moments: ordinations, Holy Week blessing of the Chrism oil, funerals of priests and prelates, honors and commemorations. The cathedral hosts the archdiocese on many occasions.
But every day it is a parish humming with life.
“We are always preparing,” said Father Frank McNamee, the cathedral rector.
Here is a day in the life of the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Families have deep roots here, going back generations. Indeed, two of the people who, as children, were at the first outdoor Mass ever celebrated on the cathedral grounds in August 1936, Betty Smith and Carroll Offen, spoke in August 2011 at a liturgy commemorating the 75th anniversary. It is also the first parish for many newcomers to Atlanta, singles seeking community, and a crossroads for seekers, searchers, tourists and visitors.
Christ the King School principal, Peggy Warner, who will retire at the end of this school year, sent her children to school here for a time and now sees two of her grandchildren at the school.
“We have a number of teachers here who were students here. I remember teachers here when they came in as kindergartners. I remember their parents. I remember their grandparents.”
“When I leave my home in the morning, I am leaving family, but I am coming to family.”
“That 75-year history here is so unique and is truly a blessing.”
The close connection between the school community and the cathedral parish makes what she calls an “all-in-one community.”
The first Mass in the parish, before a church was built, was celebrated on Aug. 15, 1936, on the feast of the Assumption. The four acres on Peachtree Road between Peachtree Way and East Wesley Road were purchased for $35,000, a little over $579,000 in today’s dollars.
The cornerstone for the church was blessed on Oct. 31, 1937, the feast of Christ the King. On that same day, the original school building was completed.
Photo removed: With 565 students, the school is now lay-led after many years of service by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart. The spirit of hospitality and service that was the way of life of the sisters remains.
“We’re very, very service-oriented. Every homeroom is always making a service project. They are always making something for the nursing home. They are always making something for the shelter,” said Leslie Coy, the longest serving teacher who has a special fondness for St. Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Grey Nun order.
In the principal’s office, an art project from the pre-first grade class hangs. Warner laughs how the students even captured her golden earrings in the portrait. Another print on her wall is of Christ knocking on a door. To her, the art is a perfect portrayal of the role of teachers in a Catholic school setting, educating students and passing on the faith.
“It never quits. If we are not all about faith, we shouldn’t be in the business,” she said.
Tim Wissler sits perched in the choir loft. For nearly 25 years, he has played the cathedral organ with its 3,616 pipes. He’s been here long enough that some of his former children’s choir members are now tying the wedding knot.
Wissler, a native of Pennsylvania, said sitting at the organ is never routine.
“I do many weddings here and funerals, and each time, some of my friends who aren’t musicians will say, ‘Don’t you get tired of that?’ It is never boring to me. Each of those liturgies with different people creates a different prayer that goes up. Hopefully, that’s what we are sending up,” he said.
He started playing the organ in high school. He later earned a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Michigan. He worked at Mercer University before he applied for the position.
“I just thought the organ was the greatest thing. Anybody would want to do this, wouldn’t they?” he asked.
From praise and worship to traditional choirs, the cathedral offers a variety of music for the celebration of Mass. He tries to practice three hours a day to prepare for the three Sunday liturgies at which he plays and for weddings, funerals and other events. The goal is for the liturgical music never to be a performance but to complement the Scripture read at Mass, he said.
“We try to offer something that will try to adorn the liturgy, in the best way that we can,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s been a time that I’m not humbled. I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
“Every week, that thought comes up somewhere along the way,” he said.
Father Frank McNamee has been the rector of the cathedral for the past four years. He was asked to take over after the beloved former rector, Msgr. Thomas Kenny, died in his sleep in 2008. Father McNamee said at first the idea of leading the archbishop’s church was “a little daunting,” but he’s grown to love the community of the parish and school.
“I’m really enjoying it. The people have been extremely supportive,” he said.
The parish has special 75th anniversary celebrations in the works for 2012 and 2013: anniversary Masses, a parish carnival, a special invitation to all the priests of the Archdiocese of Atlanta ordained at the cathedral to celebrate Mass there together, a ball, albums of photographs and memories.
The cathedral, like many parishes, is challenged by its own success. With a dozen Masses each weekend, in English and Spanish, Father McNamee estimates some 6,000 people come through the limestone church for liturgies. There are four priests assigned to the cathedral, and three additional priests are in residence there and help out. The movement of people is done with warmth and, of necessity, with precision on Sundays. “There is no time for fellowship,” Father McNamee said.
In this anniversary year, his priority is to build stronger links among parishioners and for parishioners with parish life.
To achieve that goal, the community is organizing opportunities for parishioners to meet in smaller settings. It recently started to facilitate home Masses, where neighbors are invited to gather for Mass in a parishioner’s home and stay afterwards to enjoy a meal.
Also, the parish is restarting the Men’s Club and Women’s Guild, along with an ongoing parish-wide Christ Renews His Church to create the same opportunities to get to know each other.
“There are many things we are trying to do so people feel welcome to the life of the parish,” he said.