So Much More Than A Building

What was once a distant hope is now home for Cristo Rey Atlanta

By Michael Gabriele

It never hurts to ask.

That’s how it all started. Just a few short years ago, faced with the reality that Cristo Rey Atlanta High School would soon outgrow its location, president Bill Garrett decided to simply ask for a new one. Although he never expected a “yes,” Garrett advocated, almost tongue-in-cheek, to Atlanta real estate developer James Cumming, who was looking to sell a vacant downtown building, to donate it to Cristo Rey instead. It was hardly a credible proposition for a seven-story building in Atlanta’s business district that cost roughly $750,000 a year to lease.

But God works in mysterious ways, and Jim Cumming’s generous heart was touched by the humble ask, and even more so by the mission of Cristo Rey. After only a few days of discernment, he handed over the keys to his 70,000-square-foot former Oxford Industries building. “Every once in a while, there’s a situation when the highest and best use of a property is not defined by the financial yield,” said Mr. Cumming.

The miraculous journey for Cristo Rey’s new home had just begun. Faced with a downtown office building that was just that—an office building—Cristo Rey embarked on a capital campaign to cover renovations that was ambitious to say the least. Their goal was a daunting $25 million. But when all was said and done … they had raised $30 million! It didn’t take long for donors to see the importance of the transformational work that Cristo Rey and the Jesuits provide for children from lower-income families. It was a mission that benefactors were eager to join.

The money raised enabled necessary building renovations to convert a large office building into a school. It also allowed for some extra state-of-the-art additions such as larger athletic spaces and a student gathering area.

Everything was completed with a very important deadline in mind, to ensure that the freshman class that entered in 2014—Cristo Rey’s inaugural year—would graduate in their new, amazing location. “Graduating here will allow these seniors to feel like it is their school when they come back,” said president Bill Garrett. “I think that’s great.”

Awaiting the official ribbon cutting are (left to right): Fr. Robert Hussey, SJ, Provincial of the Maryland Province; Fr. John Cecero, SJ, Provincial of the USA Northeast Province; Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta; James Cumming, the real estate developer who donated the building; and David Clower of the Raza Development Fund, which provided tax credit allocations for the renovations.

On January 30, 2018, a much-anticipated celebration packed the new auditorium with students, faculty, Jesuits and city dignitaries as they cut the ribbon to officially dedicate Cristo Rey Atlanta’s new building. A school that opened just four years ago as a joint project of the Maryland and USA Northeast Provinces now occupies part of Atlanta’s bustling downtown skyline, situated in the heart of where so many students earn their tuition at various corporate internships.

For senior students especially, it has been an incredible journey watching their new school take shape. “When I was a sophomore, they took us to visit this office building that was in need of improvement,” recalled Jahari Fraser. “Now, after two years of transforming that very office building into classrooms, offices, a cafeteria and a newly-developed gym, we have finally found a place to call home.”

Cristo Rey Atlanta president Bill Garrett proudly stands with the founder of the first Cristo Rey School, Fr. John Foley, SJ.

Jahari’s classmate Elizabeth Rodriguez added her excitement as a student-athlete, “As a student, my learning environment has become a permanent home that will be enjoyed for generations to come. As an athlete, our days of practicing on the hot parking lot of our old building are over. We are finally blessed to play and practice in our new, beautiful school. Thank you to everyone who contributed to our future and our success!”

Principal Diane Bush is always quick to boast about her students and their success. “These students have achieved to a level that no Cristo Rey ever has before. Our corporate partners and donors have made that a possibility.”

Flanked by excited Cristo Rey students, Governor Nathan Deal cuts the ribbon with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, on the left, and Cristo Rey principal Diane Bush, on the right.

As the ribbon was cut and confetti launched into the air, president Bill Garrett poignantly recalled all the milestones along the way, from that first encounter that led to the gift of a lifetime. “We were told many times it would be impossible for a school that had yet to graduate any students to secure a state-of-the-art building in the downtown area.”

From the exuberant young faces around him, the hectic journey has clearly been worthwhile. “Difficult, yes … impossible, no,” smiled Garrett. “We definitely had the Lord on our side.”

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