"MANSION TO CHURCH"
Holy Icons of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God and the Saints now gaze from their heavenly abode out over what once was a Pompeiian-inspired atrium court with a carved marble fountain, marble statues from Europe, resplendant with plush oriental carpets and flanked by sixteen marble columns.
Today, during our services, incense rises to a vaulted, pale sea green, leaded glass ceiling which dramatically illuminates the church...this little "heaven on earth" ...as it did some sixty years before when it served as a private residence.
Where once was an elegant 20 x 34 foot dining room with a massive carved dining table and a marble mantle, overshadowed with paintings, now stands a baldachino canopy and Holy Altar, made of marble from a quarry in Tate, GA. Resting upon it is an ornate
18 karat gold plated tabernacle from Greece. Behind it are a seven-branch candelabra, and two golden fans, representing the angels around the throne of God in heaven.
At this Holy Altar, our priest now intones the Divine Liturgy and we are transported to another place and time for the rest of the liturgical service. Here, another banquet takes place as a mirror of the Heavenly Banquet.
Before all of this present and holy utilization of this place, this magnificent neo-classical mansion with its exterior of cream-colored brick and white marble columns, inviting the onlooker to come up the circular driveway, was formerly the home of Asa Candler, the
Coca Cola magnate, and his wife Lucy Elizabeth Howard, having purchased the soft drink rights in 1891 for $2,300.00. After a trip to Italy, he, a devout Methodist, built this grand home at the cost of $210,000.00 in 1916.
It is set on two acres of land at 1428 Ponce de Leon Avenue in the Druid Hills Section of Atlanta.
She had envisioned the residence as a setting for many social and cultural affairs in an Atlanta which was awakening to the world. On two or more occasions, her vision was fulfilled. Billy Sunday, a renowned evangelist, spoke to a packed gathering at the home and also President Howard Taft visited their residence when he came to Atlanta for the dedication of Taft Hall at the Municipal Auditorium.
A former music room in the home provided a splendid atmosphere for visits by prominent persons and numerous social teas. As it was to the left of the main entry hall, which is now the "Narthex" (entrance) to our church, it was large enough to serve as a Heritage Room with its deep pile Chinese carpet. With its ivory paneled walls, elaborately designed ceiling and windows of stained Czechoslovakian glass, it not only had a grand piano but also a huge pipe organ. A triple paneled leaded glass window boasts a harp design. The room was lavishly furnished with gilded Louis XV style furniture, covered in satin and brocade and accented with black and gold French brocade draperies and dark Persian rugs.
This music room is now a "Para Ecclesia" or Chapel dedicated to the Mother of God and serves also as our Baptistry, where candidates for the Faith are given the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) of Christian Initiation. Greek and Russian Icons presently adorn these walls.
A twin of the music room stands to the right of the entrance and serves the parish as a Heritage Room and Gift Shop. Once the Candler library, it is still lined with the original custom built-in mahagony bookshelves. Still intact is the oversized fireplace of Italian marble which Mr. Candler had acquired from the home of James English, Jr. Purchasing the English residence at Peachtree and Prescott Streets, Candler used the bricks, doorknobs and other items in his new home. This library was a warm atmosphered room with deel luxurious armchairs, couch and oriental carpets.
What is now the nave or the main body of our beautiful church was once a magnificent 35 x 65 foot sunken atrium court, mentioned above, with its pink marble and mosaic floor. Doorways from the five former bedrooms opened on to the court. Along with four bathrooms, each bedroom had a high ceiling and each had been furnished with antique mahagony. These doorways have since been filled with lighted, stained glass depicting various Saints.
The parish community , through its clergy and architects, retained most of the interior structure. The floor of the once Roman-styled court has since been raised, covered and fitted with pews for the faithful attending services. Eight of the marble columns of the center court were removed in order to offer the congregation a better view of the Holy Place or the Sanctuary.
The clergy residence, office and work rooms have been integrated in these former bedrooms as part of the original building and wrap around the center area utilized as the church, separated by a corridor.
On this same level, just as it was during the Candler era, there still remains a large tiled breakfast room and kitchen area and pantry. A conference room and formal dining room are adjacent. All the bathrooms retain their original plumbing fixtures of that era with deep oval and bathtubs and marble shower stalls.
Formerly, during the time of the Candlers residing here, the maid's quarters were situated upstairs. The basement, where the Candlers had a game room for their guests and grandchildren, also still boasts of a single bowling alley.
After Mrs. Candler's death in 1919, with furniture still on order from Europe and the grounds not fully landscaped into the gardens as she had wished, Mr. Candler continued to live in the house and in 1923, he brought his second wife,, May Little Ragin and her ten-year old twin daughters, Julia and Mary, to live here. Residing here also was Mrs. Florence Harris, Mr. Candler's sister.
It was during this time that immigrants from many countries flocked to America, fleeing religious and political persecution or merely seeking a better life. Among them were Christians from the Middle East. These Eastern Catholics, just like the Orthodox, from the land where Christianity was born and flourished, came to America bringing with them the hope of continuing their religious traditions in this new land. For years, as in other parts of this country where parishes of the Eastern Christian tradition were established, the early immigrants from the Middle East to Atlanta dreamed of having their own Melkite Church.
In 1926, Asa Candler became ill and spent the last three years of his life at Wesley Memorial Hospital, later to become Emory University Hospital, which his philanthropy made possible.
After his death, Mrs. Candler moved and the home remained closed for a number of years. It was then rented for a long time to John Blick, Sr. From 1943 to 1946, the palatial residence of the former first citizen of Atlanta became a boarding house for fifteen tenants along with their beds and other possessions. The American Legion bought it in 1946 with the announced intention of using it as a State headquaters and war memorial.
The small Melkite Catholic Community of Atlanta worked with hope and enthusiasm after World War II to raise money to build or buy their own church in the city. A priest, whose name we are still researching, originally served the Atlanta Melkite Community for a short time.
In the summer of 1954, Rev. Fr. William Haddad came to Atlanta as their new priest. Shortly after in 1955, the parish fortunately purchased the Candler home from the American Legion for $62,000.00 and in 1957, it was placed under the patronage of our Holy Father among the Saints, John Chrysostom and was dedicated by Archbishop Francis Hyland, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Atlanta. This was before the Melkite Hierarchy was formerly established here in this country in the person of our Apostolic Exarch Justin Najmy, of blessed memory, the first Melkite Bishop of America.
Early on, the original renovation by the Melkite Community was in the amount of only $12,000.00. Another $250,000.00 soon followed to transform it, as much as possible, into the beginning of a proper Byzantine house of worship. In 1975, Joseph Lorenz, the Candlers' original artist, who, among other things, designed the original leaded glass ceiling, was contracted by the church to once again add the brilliance and majesty of colors to the ceilings and walls of the structure. Today, the ongoing transformation to bring it closer to its authentic and traditional, spiritual identity continues.
The original greenhouse behind the building still stands. A former garage with servants quarters up above was torn down. On November 30, 1983, Archbishop Joseph Tawil, of blessed memory, our first Eparch of the Melkite Diocese of Newton, dedicated in its place a new $200,000.00 two-story Cultural Center.
In 1998, Exarch William Haddad retired as Pastor and was succeeded by Rev. Fr. Jean Ghaby, who became Assistant Pastor of St. Ann Melkite Church, West Paterson, N.J. In August of 2000, Rt. Rev. Archimandrite John Azar, former Pastor of St. Anne Melkite Greek Catholic Church, No. Hollywood, CA, was appointed as our present Pastor.
The Melkite parish in Atlanta, many of its dedicated pioneers now deceased, has maintained the original vision of grandeur and majesty of a splendid structure. It has now been redirected into the creation of a beautiful house of worship to God, the Author of Creation.
As it has been one of the selected highlights of the Annual Druid Hills Tour of Homes for many years, it serves, not only as a continuing, historical and elegant landmark for the city of Atlanta, a reminder of the soft drink magnate whose fame is throughout the city but also as a welcoming place for all who wish to come and be with us in this small section of Paradise.