Bar owner Grant Henry, 66, is something of an icon around these parts. You could call him “Atlanta famous.”
His often-repeated origin story goes something like this: A college dropout who walked away one quarter shy of graduation but received his diploma anyway because he sent a letter to his school and asked nicely. A former church deacon and a graduate divinity student denied ordination because he refused to accept Jesus as the only path to salvation. A husband, a stepfather and a father, who later divorced and came out as gay in his 40s. A first time bartender at age 44 with two master’s degrees, twice named “Best Bartender” by Creative Loafing readers for his suds slinging skills at The Local on Ponce de Leon Avenue.
While working at The Local, he hustled his art from a gallery in the Telephone Factory, where he covered old thrift shop paintings with irreverent — some might say blasphemous — slogans, like“The higher the hair, the closer to God” or “Since I gave up hope, I feel much better,” under the pen name Sister Louisa.
The success of that venture led Henry in 2010 to open his Old Fourth Ward bar, Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room & Ping Pong Emporium … Come On In, Precious! — more commonly known as “Church.” The bar was an instant success. Many have credited it for making Edgewood Avenue nightlife what it is today. The gospel of Church even spawned a second location in Athens.
Henry’s kitschy art fills the walls of his drinking establishment, and it’s all for sale, but not the décor. Not even Lady Gaga herself could get Henry to part with a Virgin Mary plaque behind the bar. He’s been called the Rafael Nadal of Ping Pong by Ben Stiller on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” If you Google “Owen Wilson Hawaii,” you’ll find a photo of the movie star in a blue trucker hat that today lives in Henry’s closet, a trophy from yet another celebrity ping pong battle won.
He twice sold his life rights to Hollywood movie studios, alongside those of his former friend, one-time Creative Loafing columnist and author Hollis Gillespie. And he’s been the subject of her ire on social media when the formerly inseparable pair’s friendship ended.
Love him or hate him, it’s fair to say that Grant Henry has lived a life filled with twists and turns. His brother Mike Henry, a music industry consultant in Denver, says he’s always been this way.
“Grant has a short attention span. We’re talking about a guy who got a degree in divinity and never saved a soul. He got a degree in childhood education but never taught a class. He got a degree in hotel management, but he never booked a room.”
There’s something about Grant Henry that zigs where others zag. He was one of the first to see the business potential on the now revitalized streets of the lower Old Fourth Ward; courageous enough to open a bar with no parking, save for a few spaces on the street; and when the pandemic struck, forcing other business owners to scale back or shutter their operations, Henry took over the restaurant next door and renovated Church, nearly tripling the bar from 2,500 to 6,700 square feet.
But for all that he’s accomplished on his unique path to success, nothing could’ve prepared Henry for what happened on the way to get his hair cut one Friday in March 2021.
Life altering moment
“I haven’t really come out with it, but my life hugely changed in March of 2021, right in the middle of the pandemic,” said Henry.
Yeah, he’s not the only one.
Just as Henry was about to walk out the front door of his southeast Atlanta home to get that haircut, his daughter Mary Grace called him up and asked to talk. Like, now.
Mary Grace Henry, 40, lives with her two sons in a house behind her father’s. They share a fence where their two backyards meet, adjoined by a gate. Not only do they live side-by-side, but they work together, too, running the operations of both Church and other Henry family business interests. Grant does big ideas; Mary Grace manages the details.
Henry knew something was up as he watched Mary Grace enter his backyard, march past his swimming pool, through the covered patio and straight into his kitchen, laptop under her arm.
“She looked like life had changed forever,” he said.
Memo from a stranger
A few days later and a few miles down the road, Dr. Merci Ortenzi Treaster was in her Decatur home, going about her evening routine: a shower, a fresh pair of pajamas and an hour or so of Netflix until her son fell asleep. But when she got out of the shower, there was an email waiting for her that upended her nightly routine and reshaped roughly half of everything she ever knew about herself.
“It was a message from 23andMe,” said Treaster, a doctor of physical therapy who operates The Pelvis Pro, an Inman Park health facility for women. Treaster had taken a DNA test from the company six years earlier to learn more about her genetic heritage.
“It was from Mary Grace Henry. She said she took a DNA test for health reasons, and her test was telling her that we were biological half-sisters.”
Born 32 years ago to a single mother, Treaster was the product of intrauterine insemination, more commonly referred to as artificial insemination. Her mom later married, and Merci was raised in a loving home by two women.
Assuming Mary Grace was also conceived through artificial insemination, Merci immediately emailed back to enquire about the identity of her half-sister’s sperm donor.
“I said ‘Cool, did your parents have you via artificial insemination as well?’”
No, Mary Grace responded. Her sperm donor, so to speak, was actually her dad. And in that moment, Merci calculated that not only had she discovered the identity of a biological half-sister just a few miles down the road, but that information would lead her to the identity of her biological father.
What happened next was a flurry of social media cross-triangulations. Mary Grace and Grant Henry pored over the internet footprint of Merci Treaster. Merci and her husband Mitch scrolled through the Instagram and Facebook accounts of Mary Grace.
“We just sat on the couch, looking through,” Treaster said, recalling the moment of discovery. “You can see there is a picture of Mary Grace with her kids and an older person she called Paw Paw. So, I immediately went to his Facebook.”
And just like that, Merci Treaster was staring at the face of her biological father: Grant Henry, the Atlanta entrepreneur and self-avowed “anti-artist” who more than three decades ago sold his sperm to make ends meet during seminary.
“As you can imagine, I did not sleep that night,” said Treaster. “I was just on Facebook and Instagram. I think I listened to at least four recordings of interviews he’s done. I read his Wikipedia page. I could see he owned the bar Church, which, like, I’ve been there before. And I could immediately see that he was gay. I said, “Mitch, I’m a product of two homosexuals. How am I straight!?’”
Meeting the BF
All week long, Treaster exchanged texts with her newfound half-sister Mary Grace, and it was going well. But she decided to take her time with her biological father.
“I never grew up thinking I didn’t have something. If anything, I just wanted to know what he visually looked like. But I never thought about what he was like. Never. I knew I was about to open a whole new thing, and I had to ask myself: Do I want to do this?”
After a week of reflection, Merci had an answer to that question. She sent Grant an email, which said in part:
As you know, my name is Merci Ortenzi Treaster. And I am a product of a donation you gave. I thank you.
Words can’t describe how this past week has gone. Sleepless nights, thoughts throughout the day and many discussions with close friends and family. However, for some reason, only positive thoughts and feelings. Never fear.
31 years later I’m visually able to see (because of social media) who I’ve called my BF my entire life. My BF (biological father) that I always jokingly blamed my bad gums on, my fluctuating weight, my easily burned skin, my wavy hair.
I am shocked. Thrilled. Excited. Frightened.
I don’t have the words.
I have decided, if you and Mary Grace are willing, I would like to meet.”
Henry replied as quickly as he could type.
A Mano, amore
A few weeks later, Merci Treaster found herself outside the Old Fourth Ward Italian restaurant A Mano, trying to steady her nerves for her first meeting with her half-sister and her biological father. She’d thought about bringing her husband, or her child, or maybe her mom — anyone to defray some measure of social pressure. But in the end, she decided to go it alone.
The transformational three-hour meal was punctuated by a lifetime of catch up, memories shared, genetics and family history revealed, nature and nurture compared and contrasted. There was more to uncover than a single lunch could ever allow, but by the end one thing was clear: They wanted more.
“If you want this in your life,” Henry told Treaster, “just know I will never leave you.”
It’s been a little over a year since that first lunch, and during that time the Henry clan has grown. At some point along the way, the Henrys and the Ortenzis and the Treasters came together. Biological mom, second mom and bio dad all met. The grandkids from both sides of the newfound family got together for summer pool days at Paw Paw’s. And there was a big Thanksgiving dinner that also included Henry’s stepchildren and their kids.
“Fast forward a year, and we hang out,” said Treaster. “I was just at the pool with Mary Grace a couple days ago with our kids. We all went to see a movie on Sunday. We’re friends.”
For Treaster, the Henrys are less like the missing piece of a puzzle and more like a bonus family.
“I realized I never was missing a family,” she said. “I already have a brother, and I already have two parents. So, I may never need a dad or a sister, but here are these really cool people who are now a part of my life.”
It’s been a “wild ride,” said Mary Grace. “But you know, it was pretty cool. You look at somebody, and it’s almost a little bit of a mirror image. You can see similarities in looks, in behaviors. It’s pretty amazing. It’s just been, little by little, getting to know what this means.”
Signs of Merci Treaster now permeate every corner of Henry’s life. Where once he displayed in his home a set of matching portraits of his two grandchildren, now he has added a third.
There is evidence of Treaster at Church, too. Long before that fateful day in March 2021, Henry had affixed bold yellow lettering to the lattice that shields the bar’s patio from the street. It read “DADDY-O.”
This year Henry revisited the installation, to quietly honor his newfound family. With a few more letters, smaller this time and painted lime green, he added the word “BIO.”
“I am a different person,” Henry said, reflecting of the experience. “You stand on your story all your life and build your life around your story, and then all of a sudden, this news changed that.
“I’ve gone inward a lot more this year,” he said. “It’s completely changed my life. It’s been transformational, but in a good way. Truly, my focus in life today is on family.”