By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Editor | Published March 2, 2023
ATLANTA—A friendship between two pastors—one Catholic and one Baptist—led to the launch of a preschool to serve the children of both their church communities.
Christ the King Preschool at Second-Ponce marked the opening of its inaugural school year in August 2022. The preschool is an ecumenical program operated by the Cathedral of Christ the King and hosted on the campus of Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church in Buckhead.
As the first school year winds down, there are plans to expand it to serve students ages 5 and 6, beginning next fall. It currently serves students from 12 months old to pre-K.
To enter into such a joint endeavor, “you have to have a high level of mutual trust,” said Dr. Dock Hollingsworth, senior pastor of Second-Ponce.
The two churches, situated on the corner of Peachtree and East Wesley Roads, have a track record of being neighborly.
“I think the history has gone back to the ecumenical services we have on Good Friday,” said Msgr. Francis McNamee, rector of the cathedral.
He said it’s a good relationship, in which they look out for health of one another and their communities.
“We built on that relationship,” said the monsignor.
Hollingsworth arrived at Second-Ponce, nine and a half years ago after an 18-year career at Mercer University.
“Monsignor had a peace lily delivered,” recalled Hollingsworth. It was a beautiful, yet singular welcome from the community, he said.
Kim Sheppard, director of operations for the Cathedral said Second-Ponce extended use of their facilities for CTK programs and services during construction of the Hyland Center in 2018.
“It was really tremendous,” said Sheppard.
The two spiritual leaders meet regularly for meals and fellowship.
“It’s a great thing when we do get together for lunch,” said Msgr. McNamee.
Sheppard noticed that during the pandemic the two pastors were able to offer each other unique support to get things off their chests. She emphasized the value of being able to talk to a peer. Because he came from an academic setting, it was very helpful for Hollingsworth to be able to talk to a colleague about ministry.
A new preschool
Due to enrollment challenges, the Second-Ponce community needed to make some tough decisions about the future of its preschool post-pandemic.
“We had a preschool in the space long before I came,” said Hollingsworth. “The last thing I wanted to do was to close the preschool.”
Several Catholic families had children enrolled in the Baptist Church’s preschool, and the two communities began to talk about how to keep it open and vibrant. The church leaders got out their calculators and tape measures and started to explore the project.
The Cathedral of Christ the King would become the operator of the early childhood program with Second-Ponce providing the needed space. Hollingsworth said the venture has been a stabilizer for the community.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a huge success,” he said. “It saved the preschool.”
The Second-Ponce preschool first started in 1968. The new Christ the King Preschool draws on the long history of Catholic education, while preserving the legacy of the original school. It prioritizes families of the two congregations in its enrollment process.
“I think Dock and myself we agreed, we’re going to be respectful of each other’s traditions,” said Msgr. McNamee.
“Jesus loves you is” is the foundation, said Hollingsworth.
Chapel time at the preschool includes songs and Bible stories and is planned according to ages of the children.
The cathedral-run preschool agreed to keep all of the previous teachers on staff.
“It created continuity for the kids. That’s also contributed to a smooth transition,” said Hollingsworth.
The preschool maintains all of the Safe Environment guidelines and practices set forth by the Archdiocese of Atlanta. It is licensed by the State of Georgia as a Bright from the Start program, permitting the school to offer an extended day.
The new preschool endeavor created additional interfaith opportunities through service projects for the congregations and the preschool families. Parents and grandparents are getting to know one another through open houses, breakfasts and other activities. A summer camp is also planned for little ones.
The director of the preschool is Joleen Neel, formerly director of Northside Baptist Preschool. Its assistant director is Dorsey DeLong, formerly interim director of the preschool at Second-Ponce.
“I’m so grateful for the trust of the congregation of Second-Ponce, and blessed by their friendship with our parish community,” said Monsignor McNamee upon the school’s opening. “I know that we will create an environment where our youngest students will be prepared with the strongest possible academic foundation and know that they are loved by God.”
Bishop Joel M. Konzen, SM, himself a longtime educator, attended the school’s ribbon cutting last fall.
Prior to the ceremony, Bishop Konzen remarked, “This is where so much of the faith is initially transmitted, where so much formation in the way to approach God and treat one another—all of that is handled in these years.”
Msgr. McNamee and Hollingsworth suspect that the ecumenical preschool might be a first in its collaboration.
“It is a witness to the larger community,” said Hollingsworth.
Find the preschool online at www.ctkpreschoolat2p.com.