By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 20, 2020
ATLANTA—Sandwiched between business towers and hotels to the south and high-rises filled with new residents to the north, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Midtown aims to draw newcomers by showcasing its distinctiveness, swinging open its doors for a glimpse of its history and to engage visitors in ministries, from jail visits to crafting shawls.
Its neighborhood to the north has been transformed with a boom in new condos and apartments. According to Midtown ATL, about half of those new residents are Millennials or Gen Xers. It’s those 20s and 30s young adults who have left behind their childhood religion and increasingly are unaffiliated with organized religion.
Those are the people Alessandra Richardson hopes to connect with, relying in part on a robust social media message to spread the word about the parish and how its members live the faith.
The 30-year-old, who coordinates the parish’s social media presence, said working on social justice issues appeals to young adults, alongside building an “intentional community,” she said.
“People are craving and are interested in it. They just need it in their inbox,” said Richardson, who also edits the parish’s Spires bulletin.
Also, the basilica was among some 50 historic landmarks in the fall to participate in Open House Atlanta, an international architectural tour.
“It’s a weekend to get an inside peek at these hidden treasures,” said Laura Moody, an organizer of the event.
Houses of worship are “examples of really strong creative arts,” she said. But visiting a religious building may be intimidating for some so these tours lower barriers, she said.
Members of Sacred Heart approached Open House Atlanta to be part of the day, Moody said. Visitors saw how downtown isn’t only for businesses or government buildings, but where people can live, worship and be part of a vibrant community in a beautiful setting, Moody said.
The church community is part of the fabric of downtown and linked to life overlooking Peachtree Street, from serving the homeless on Thursdays to hosting the grand, annual Red Mass for the Atlanta legal community.
And while the building’s history attracts people, it is the vibrant ministries where faith lives deepen. There are some 40 different ministries, with 250 parishioners participating in ministry programs.
Focusing on the personal
Shepherded by the parish Legacy Group, a group of laywomen and men together with parish clergy set a goal to raise the parish profile linking the historic parish with newcomers to build community with ministries across generations.
Rob Berling, 72, has been in the parish for more than 20 years. He saw the new construction in the neighborhood drawing more people, but didn’t see the church trying to reach them, he said. Berling, a business consultant, said that spurred him to form this group to “assure Sacred Heart has a legacy.”
They are borrowing adventurous techniques to guide their efforts, measuring key performance indicators to shape decisions with the freedom to fail.
For instance, they introduced a 4 p.m. Saturday Mass. The plan is to put it on the calendar for a year. They are taking a head count to see if it draws in new worshippers or takes people away from the existing 5:30 p.m. Mass. If the results show it doesn’t attract more people, it could go away.
Both the basilica’s email newsletter and social media posts are centered on the people of the parish, not announcements.
The personal is a key part of the brand of any nonprofit and church, Richardson said. It’s why the Instagram feed features faces of people from the ministries and the pews, not stock photos or as a billboard for future events. People become aware of a ministry as they also see who does it and its mission in their social media feeds, so it is not daunting to connect, Richardson said.
The parish hosts pop-up ministry fairs throughout the year, quickly setting a table on the sidewalk outside the church to connect Catholics or passersby with volunteer opportunities, instead of a once-a-year event.
Connect is what Richardson wanted to do. She was a graduate student at Emory University earning a doctorate in cancer biology, not feeling tied to the Catholic campus center. A website showed her this church, just a short two miles away from her apartment at Ponce City Market. She started attending in 2015, drawn to the church’s history. She hoped to rekindle the warm connection from her Miami home church to her new parish.
“I wanted to feel like I wasn’t going to Mass by myself,” she said.
Richardson said leaders were ready to embrace a new way of doing things.
“They knew the need. We needed to be outreach leaning,” she said.
One goal is linking the parish with young Hispanic professionals. Some 50 percent of U.S. born young adult Hispanics have college degrees, including Richardson, whose heritage is Cuban.
Richardson wants to see how to build up those young adults at the parish as a bridge to the wider Hispanic community, which has a vibrant presence at the parish. It offers the only Spanish Mass in the urban core of Atlanta.
The Hispanic community has been a part of the Sacred Heart community for more than 40 years, said Deacon Marino Gonzalez, a native of the Dominican Republic.
Catholics from Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Honduras and many other Latin American countries worship here, he said. Some families come from as far away as Suwanee to be with the community, he said.
Deacon Gonzalez said like many people, believers are drawn to the historical building then find an enthusiastic, family atmosphere, he said.
Celebrations surrounding Our Lady of Guadalupe bring out mariachis, Mexican culture and food. The community observes Good Friday with a dramatization of the Stations of the Cross, which brings together Spanish and English speakers, Deacon Gonzalez said.
“We feel blessed to be part of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart,” he added.
History of the Catholic hub
The Romanesque red brick parish is one of the oldest in Atlanta at 140 years old. It sits at the northern edge of downtown. Its 137-foot towers were once the tallest points of the neighborhood. Now, they are dwarfed by the 867-foot SunTrust Plaza across the street. The reusable shopping bags handed to people after Mass name the place as the “intown, midtown, downtown Catholic Church.”
The bell towers became the centerpiece of its $1.2 million campaign. Named “Save Our Spires,” the campaign aimed to preserve the aging towers at risk of being lost. The parish rallied to the cause. It in turn sparked this new initiative to rethink how the parish shares itself.
A network of Catholic institutions once called the area home, including the Marist School, Saint Joseph’s Hospital and nursing school. The parish was at its hub served by members of the Marist community. Those institutions left generations ago, although in recent years, the nearby Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School uses the church for Mass and other school events.
In 1976, the Church of the Sacred Heart was entered in the National Register of Historic Places. Sacred Heart in 2010 was named a minor basilica, making it the pope’s church in the archdiocese, said the pastor, Msgr. Ed Thein. A papal umbrella —red and yellow silk—stands near the altar to mark its designation.
It’s also one of the few places in Atlanta a saint has visited. St. Teresa of Kolkata attended a Mass in 1995. She was in Atlanta for the blessing of the Missionaries of Charity AIDS hospice, the Gift of Grace House, which is within the boundaries of Sacred Heart parish and embraced by its members.
Msgr. Thein said the parish is watching two new groups of people settle nearby, young, college graduates and older couples with grown children, who want to settle in the city to be near cultural events. In addition, the parish has an active Hispanic community, he said.
“We see ourselves reaching out to a lot of people,” he said, including the occasional worshipper in costume from Dragon Con, which attracts tens of thousands of fans of science fiction, comic books and pop culture. Large groups of convention goers are often recognized at Mass.
The designation as a basilica is an honor for the whole archdiocese and welcomes all, which is its “foundational” message, he said.
“It’s very powerful to see the different kinds of people coming,” said the pastor.
The parish reported success in the efforts. Family registrations are up 34 percent, with about some 1,200 registrations.
Collin Hughes, 32, hopes to revive Beers & Books, the young adult outreach at brewpubs and apartments, which first drew him and his wife, Katherine, to grow closer to the community of young adults. Growing up at Holy Family Church, Marietta, now he’s a leader on the parish council here.
Leaders know a key to parish success is making the place engaging to members and inviting to newcomers, said Hughes. Ministries link people sitting in the pew for Sunday Mass to a dynamic, deeper faith, he said.
Janet Wells, 76, leads the women’s prison ministry, making twice-a-month trips to the Union City lockup. She said the Sacred Heart community “really does the Beatitudes.”
She brings spiritual readings and Holy Communion for incarcerated Catholics. Sitting in a circle, between 20 and 40 women are encouraged to offer reflections on the readings.
“The minute you get with the women, it all becomes a sacred space,” said Wells. “You really do see Christ in the eyes of everyone there.”
Jenny Jobson, 48, started attending the parish in the 1990s when she moved from the suburbs to the Grant Park neighborhood.
“I instantly fell in love with the building, and then the community,” said Jobson.
Now the executive director of Midtown Assistance Center, an ecumenical collaboration to prevent homelessness, Jobson credits the parish with spurring her to give more in service to people with little.
“Living in Grant Park and attending Sacred Heart, you were helping your neighbors. It was pretty obvious,” she said.
The four Jobson children have been baptized here. Jenny and her husband, Rob, are extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. They recently moved to Gwinnett County but it’s important they remain at Sacred Heart.
She’s seen the parish change as more families fill the pews.
“There are certainly more families and more children,” she said. “It’s not unusual to see multiple toddlers and babies attending Mass, which is exciting.”
For Berling, the parish’s fundraiser to Save the Spires is only one measure of success. He is happy to see the parish hit its fundraising goal, but feels there is a more significant test.
“Anyone can raise money,” he said. “The thing to be proud of is there is life, there is initiative, and it is sustainable.”