Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Archbishop Celebrates Mass At Oldest Cemetery

By JAMES GRIFFIN, special Contributor | Published December 8, 2005

Standing where Bishop John England and other bishops and priests have stood for two centuries, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory presided at Mass at Locust Grove Cemetery on Saturday, Nov. 5. The Mass for All Souls is a long tradition at Locust Grove Cemetery, which is the former site of Our Lady of Purification Church, a parish now located in the nearby town of Sharon. On the first Saturday of November each year, pilgrims gather from near and far to visit the oldest Catholic cemetery in Georgia.

The first Catholic community to settle permanently in Georgia came from Maryland during the 1790s, when Wilkes County covered much of present east-central Georgia. At the time, Washington, Ga., was a new city, and Washington, D.C., was under construction.

These Catholic immigrants established the first Christian church in what is now Taliaferro County (named for a Revolutionary War soldier and pronounced “TOL-i-ver”) at a place they called Locust Grove. For three generations the community thrived, drawing immigrants from France, Ireland and other places and occasional visits from Catholic bishops.

Depleted soil and war led to the migration of much of the community to other places, but a root remains, and Purification Church survives as a shrine, where Mass is still celebrated once a month. At Locust Grove Cemetery, old stones and ancient oaks still speak.

A relatively new granite altar stands in the woods where the old altar once stood. The altar is dedicated to Bernard Darden, who lived just up the road. Piles of stones mark the old foundations of the sanctuary. Similar stones piled two or three feet high mark the boundaries of the cemetery, which is about three acres of peace, shade and falling acorns.

With high noon sun shining through the autumn splendor over his left shoulder, Archbishop Gregory greeted the approximately 50 people who gathered to pray for all the souls who have come before. He noted in his homily that Catholics share a common faith, even if the customs have changed.

For some present, those buried at Locust Grove Cemetery are family and ancestors, but for most, they are simply sharers in the great faith, kinsmen in Christ. Society can and will change, but people always return to the Catholic faith. For this reason the faithful return to Locust Grove Cemetery and those buried in this place.

In light of the archbishop’s words, the pilgrims and those buried at Locust Grove reflect the spectrum of the faith. They have English, African, Irish, French, Mexican, German and other ancestries. They come from parishes named for ancient Jews such as St. Joseph and Africans such as St. Augustine of Hippo. Some were baptized at Purification Church, but others were baptized in places as far away as County Carlow, Ireland, and Cristobal, Panama. They are seniors, adults, youth and babies, laymen and priests.

One first-time attendee at the Mass of All Souls in Locust Grove Cemetery, Tom Rouse of Christ Our King and Savior Church in Greensboro, said that the highlight was “watching the sunlight illuminate the eucharistic host as Archbishop Gregory recited the prayers of consecration.”