By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published November 9, 2006
A two-day pilgrimage recently retraced early Catholic history in Georgia, linking the past to the present as Catholics of the new millennium remembered and prayed for those who brought the faith to this region over 200 years ago.
Pastors in each location welcomed the pilgrims, who traveled by bus to Locust Grove, Sharon, Washington, Milledgeville, Conyers and Atlanta.
Mass at the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Sharon, built in 1883, was very touching, pilgrims said.
“There’s something majestic in the simplicity in some of these churches. There really is,” said Sally Miller, a parishioner of Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta. “There are only a few Catholics in some of these smaller towns, but they are very faithful. … We prayed at each spot, especially for those who founded the Catholic religion in this area.”
“The Mass at Sharon—there was something very special about that,” said another pilgrim. “The theme, especially at Sharon, was the courage these people had to come to the middle of nowhere to spread the faith. They were the original (Catholic) families.”
Reflecting its age, the church has no running water, said Barb Garvin, one of the members of the archdiocesan religious education department who participated.
As her coworkers Kersti O’Farrell and Lisa Eberhardt led the group in singing during the Mass, “you could feel the music vibrating through (the church),” Garvin said. “The Holy Spirit was there.”
“It’s a gorgeous old church. It has been a wonderful opportunity to connect the old with the new,” she said.
This historic church has outlived a Catholic congregation. Considered a station church, Mass is celebrated at the Church of the Purification once a month by Father Chris Williamson, who comes from St. Joseph Church in Washington, another historic Catholic area, where he is pastor.
The third nearby site is the historic Catholic cemetery in Locust Grove, where there is no longer a church, but many gravestones of early Catholic settlers remain. Mass is celebrated in the cemetery on All Souls Day each year.
In addition to the pilgrims, archdiocesan archivist John Hanley, Father Luke Ballman, pastor of St. Augustine Church, Covington, Father Charles Byrd, an archdiocesan priest on the faculty at St. Vincent Seminary in LaTrobe, Pa., and Deacon Lloyd Sutter led the trip, which was coordinated by Mary Elkins.
Catholics first came to Georgia from Maryland in the 1790s, said Hanley, who spent four months writing a history of Catholicism in North Georgia for the occasion of the golden jubilee of the Atlanta Diocese this year.
“In 1790, prior to leaving Maryland, the group of Catholic settlers applied to Bishop (John) Carroll of Baltimore for a priest to accompany them to Georgia, but the request was not granted,” he writes. “The group left Maryland and soon arrived in a remote area in Wilkes County, Georgia. The Catholic settlement, originally named ‘Mary Land,’ was established sometime between late 1790 and 1792. … The Maryland Catholics and their settlement have the distinction of being acknowledged as the first Catholic congregation formed in the State of Georgia.”
Later joined by French Catholics at the turn of the century and by Irish Catholics in the 1810s and 1820s, Locust Grove thrived with a Catholic academy, the first in Georgia, staffed by Sisters of St. Joseph from France. In the changing economic fortunes of the times, that Catholic community later declined in number and the center of the faith became nearby Sharon, where a Catholic church and boarding school were vital parts of life for many decades. Then the Catholic community in Washington grew while Sharon declined. Cemeteries in all three locations evoke memories of these original Catholic families and the priests and sisters who came throughout more than a century to help establish and sustain the Catholic faith in Georgia.
The Oct. 17-18 trip included stops at these sites, where Hanley provided historic background and priests celebrated Mass.
An overnight stop in Milledgeville, once the capital of Georgia, included a visit to Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, which was completed in 1874, Mass celebrated by the pastor, Father Michael McWhorter, and a talk by parishioner Margaret Uhler, a friend of Flannery O’Connor, about the Catholic writer and Sacred Heart parishioner.
Traveling on, the group visited the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, where they were given lunch and a full tour of the Cistercian monastery by the monks. The monastery was established in 1944 and the structures, including the abbey church, were built by hand.
The pilgrimage in Atlanta visited the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the oldest Catholic church in Atlanta, and Sacred Heart Church, which is over 100 years old.
“It was beautifully done and beautifully arranged,” said Miller.
The historic stops made Rita Rohaley of St. Augustine Church and Martha Robert of St. Jude Church, Atlanta, reflect on the spiritual heritage that continues today.
“They’d go months without seeing a priest, and yet they kept the faith,” both said of the early Catholic families. “It makes you realize how great this country is—they had freedom of religion, and we still have it today.”
The trip has been “a real spiritual pilgrimage,” Rohaley said, “and it could be longer.”
Hanley said that he hopes other pilgrimages can be planned, including one-day trips, which can help Catholics deepen their awareness of their Georgia Catholic heritage. Writing the history has been a profound experience, he said.
“I kind of feel like I’ve gone through four years of college in studying the history of the diocese,” he said. “It has helped me to do my job better.”
And, he said, he too learned while on the pilgrimage as he visited the monastery for the first time.
“I have lived here for five years. I have never been there. For me it was one of the highlights,” the archivist said. “It was beautiful, and I learned so much. I can tell people if you have not been to the monastery, you should go. It was a wonderful experience to go there.”