Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium – otherwise known as ‘Church’ – is a controversial, one-of-a-kind bar in Atlanta. Located on Edgewood Avenue in Old Fourth Ward, the bar is famous for the religious art that covers its walls, a retrofitted confessional that serves as a photobooth, an organ for live karaoke, complimentary choir robes, and, oddly enough, ping pong tournaments. But the similarities to a real church end right there – instead of communion-sized glasses of grape juice, the Church serves up $3 beers in adult-sized glasses.
In the four years that it’s been open, the Church has seen tremendous success. Right from the opening night in 2010, the church bar has received national media attention. It is a popular tourist attraction in Atlanta, and a hotspot for hipsters and Hollywood stars such as Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, and Lady Gaga. “From Day One, it’s been a money-maker,” said artist and bar owner Grant Henry.
Henry, who previously worked as a bartender for 10 years, single-handedly created the 200-odd pieces of religious art that adorn the bar. He’s actually been making these eclectic pieces since the late 1990s, under the wacky pseudonym ‘Sister Louisa’. And it turns out that the Church is actually an excuse to showcase the work. “I did it more from an artistic point of view because I’m more of an artist than a bartender,” he admitted. “I turned it into a bar basically for my art. It’s more like an art gallery that sold alcohol.”
Photo: OTP P./Foursquare
Having taken on a string of odd jobs in his youth, Henry gained a rich work experience that eventually led to his unusual choice of career. He started off conducting quality assurance for a popular chain of hotels, after which he pursued a master’s degree in middle child education. Later, he split from his wife and went to Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. “I was grappling to figure out who I was,” he said. “It was more of a life search.”
He eventually left seminary because of differences in his beliefs, so he was never ordained. But the experience had a deep impact on him, so when he moved to downtown Atlanta in the 90s, he opened an antiques store called ‘Resurrection Antiques and Other Worldly Possessions’. “I started meeting all kinds of different people,” he recollected. “It was like an awakening. It was the first step in me not being a good boy.”
Photo: J Is for Jetsetter
His experiences in Atlanta led Henry to create an alter ego for himself – the artistic Sister Louisa. Around 1996, he started creating artwork by taking ‘paint-by-number’ paintings with religious themes and embellishing them with colorful words. He did his first art show at The Telephone Factory Lofts, during which he sold all the 66 pieces he’d created. Henry admits that he was quite shocked at his success. “People freaked out, it just started selling,” he said.
So he continued to make Sister Louisa art, while working as a bartender from 2000 to 2010. He slowly built up a following during the time, finally branching out into his own pub-cum-art business with the Church. His admirers loved the concept, and the bar was a big hit. “There’s nothing else like it,” admitted Michael J. Benoit, Henry’s mentor and owner of The Vortex Grill & Bar. “People feel like they’re in on the joke.”
Photo: David B./TripAdvisor
“I’m not surprised by any of it,” added Joe Stewardson, president of the Old Fourth Ward Business Association. “I’ve watched him be successful at all different aspects of life. There’s one certain thing about Grant, there’s no rest.”
Henry maintains a no-smoking and no-television policy at the Church, because he wants it to be an enjoyable place for everyone. And he’s always changing things up, creating new pieces. He usually shops online, looking for old artworks that nobody is interested in. He then puts an artistic spin on every creation with a collection of phrases and heretical quotes. The décor may be intimidating, but a lot of people end up loving it anyway.
Photo: Degenerate Press
“Two people can look at the same picture the same piece of art and you know one of them says, ‘Wow this guy is awesome. He is so, you know, a religious guy, he’s whatever.’ The next person can come in and say, ‘I’m leaving this place, lightning is about to strike,” Henry explained. But according to employees at the Church, the atmosphere attracts diverse customers.
“It’s completely different,” said bartender Seth Shaw. “It’s basically for anyone who’s open to everything. It’s not insulting, it’s for everyone. It’s for the gay community, the black and white community, it involves everyone. It’s really cool to have that crowd interacting.”
Henry is now planning to expand the business – he’s opening another bar at a new location in Athens, Georgia. “I love Athens, I love the downtown feel,” he said. “I’m looking to buy a house so I can have a place close by.” He’s already started making the artwork for the new church bar – we don’t know yet what it’s going to be, but it is surely to make a few heads turn. “You got to give them something to talk about,” said Henry, cheekily.