The Savannah Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
By. Matthew J. Bellisario 2011
By. Matthew J. Bellisario 2011
I once again had the opportunity to visit the lovely city of Savannah Georgia. I spent the past weekend in the historic district and I was able to attend the Latin Mass on Sunday in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. I spent many hours walking around the scenic historical district and I could not help but ponder the many men and women who walked these very streets over the past 280 years or so before me. Savannah began as a settlement in 1733 by General Olglethorpe. In 1751 when Georgia became an actual colony of the Crown, Savannah was designated as the capital. There is a lot of history to be taken in when visiting the alluring town. If you are a book lover, there are several charming bookstores in the historic district which offer many books on Savannah’s rich history. My primary interest of course was the history of the Catholic Church, and how this splendid Cathedral arose from the hanging moss of a predominately Protestant town in the Southeast U.S.
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist seems to me to have been a miracle of sorts. Although the town was formally founded by English Protestants, Catholics were the first to actually arrive in the area under the Spanish monarchy. As early as the mid 1500s Spain had explored and set up missions in Florida, and Georgia, and into the 1700s there were at least 20 missions set up along the Georgia coast. There were many native converts, and there were Catholic martyrs as well. For example, five Franciscan missionaries lost their lives to an enraged native convert to Christianity who refused to accept the Church’s teaching on monogamy. The French Catholics in the late 1700s started the actual first Catholic recognized congregation of Savannah called St. John the Baptist. It was a long and hard road for Catholics to survive in the city. Many people often forget the harsh discrimination and persecution that Catholics faced in the early years of our country by the hands of the Protestants. It is a fact, in Savannah it was illegal to be a Catholic and reside in the city up until 1782, when the British finally departed the city after the revolution.
Savannah originally fell under the Diocese of Baltimore. The first small wooden church of St. John was constructed between Liberty, Montgomery and State streets was built in 1800. It was later replaced by a brick church in 1839. In 1820 Savannah was moved under the Diocese of Charleston, and finally in 1850 Pope Pius IX granted Savannah her own Diocese under her first bishop, the Right Reverend Francis X. Gartland. Bishop Gartland used the brick church as his first Cathedral. He died in 1859 to the yellow fever while caring for the city's sick and dying. It was in 1873 with Savannah’s fifth bishop, the Right Reverend William H. Gross who laid the cornerstone for what was to become the new Cathedral of Savannah. In 1876 the Cathedral was dedicated and opened its doors for its first Mass.
In 1896 the two spires were completed but tragedy struck in February of 1898 when the Cathedral caught fire and much of it was destroyed. Miraculously the Cathedral was rebuilt in under two years and in October of 1899 it reopened, however lacking in much of its interior decor. As the years went by the interior of the Cathedral began to take shape. In 1912 the Cathedral was finished with its murals, which were shipped from a New York studio. They are truly a sight to behold. In the 50’s and 60’s more murals were added as well as other structural improvements such as heating and air. In the mid 80s it was discovered that the building’s foundation was deteriorated and had to be repaired. Finally between 1998 and 2000 there were repairs made to the stained glass and the roof and the pillars of the nave received a gold leaf and marbleization. This is the building that we see today. There are few Catholic churches in the southern US that can compete with this Cathedral in size or beauty.
As I walked down Abercorn street gazing through the Spanish moss, I could see her spires towering above the trees and houses from several blocks away. I imagined how it must have been in the early 1900s when families traveled by foot and carriage along the dirt and cobblestone streets to attend Mass on Sundays. They must have come from the far corners of the city to hear those wonderful words, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.” Those were the very words I would hear as well since the Diocese offers the Latin Mass at the Cathedral every Sunday at 1PM. I arrived a little early and watched as the faithful emptied out of the Cathedral from the 11:30 Mass. I saw Bishop Hartmayer come down the steps to greet the people after Mass. I had the opportunity to stop over and kiss his ring and thank him for keeping the Extraordinary Form of the Mass available here at his Cathedral. It seems that the Latin Mass was begun at the Cathedral in 2007 under Bishop Boland. Is there a more fitting place to have it celebrated? It was truly an amazing experience to have gone to the Latin Mass in such a historically rich setting. As I kneeled on the floor during Mass I contemplated that I was truly a part of the history of this marvelous Cathedral. Although I was not physically there in the late 1800s or the early 1900s, I was there in spirit. As we all know, the Mass is not something that exists in time alone, it is eternal. And so I was there with all of those Catholics who came before me who sat under the same roof, gazed upon the same stained glass windows and heard the same Mass in Latin that I did. Unless you are able to go to Europe and experience the Latin Mass in one of those age old churches, this is truly a gem of the Southern United States for Catholics.