By SUZANNE HAUGH, Staff Writer | Published December 21, 2006
To better appreciate the vibrancy of the Atlanta Archdiocese today one must go back in history to times such as 1820 when the sparse Catholic population in both Georgia and the Carolinas numbered only 1,000. The church regarded Georgia and the surrounding states as mission country well into the middle of the 1900s.
Religious communities of consecrated men and women became crucial in efforts to serve the spiritual needs of Catholics tucked into the Georgia landscape.
Churches, schools, hospitals, homes for children—one does not have to look too far before finding evidence of the significant contributions these religious communities have made to North Georgia Catholics and to the entire region.
Thirty-one religious communities of men and 47 religious communities of women have served or continue to serve here. Following are short histories of five of the earliest orders to come to the archdiocese. Included are also reflections from some of these consecrated men and women and how they continue to live out their founders’ charisms.
Sisters of Mercy
Founded: 1831 in Dublin, Ireland
Foundress: Mother Catherine McAuley
Sisters Arrived in Georgia: 1866
Sister Valentina Sheridan, RSM, director of mission integration at Saint Joseph’s Hospital, recalled some of the history the Sisters of Mercy have in the Atlanta Archdiocese during an interview and shared some of her remarks from a jubilee celebration of Religious Sept. 12.
The Sisters of Mercy became the first order of religious teachers in Atlanta when they arrived from their motherhouse in Savannah one year after the end of the Civil War in 1866 upon the request of Father Thomas O’Reilly, then pastor of Immaculate Conception Church. An academy for grades one through 12 and also a boarding school opened at the parish on Dec. 11, 1866, with the help of the four Sisters of Mercy. The boarding school operated until 1924 and Immaculate Conception Academy for over 100 years until it closed its doors in 1967.
In 1880 the Sisters of Mercy also started a school at a parish named Sts. Peter and Paul, whose church became known as Sacred Heart when it moved from Marietta and Jones avenues in Atlanta to where it is today at Peachtree Street and Ralph McGill Boulevard. The school remained open for 12 years. In 1912 the Mercy sisters opened another school, St. Anthony’s, but withdrew in 1917 because of transportation problems.
Sister Valentina shared a few stories on the opening in 1952 of Our Lady of the Assumption School. The sisters arrived, as the story is told, to the convent, empty, but with one cup, one pot and a dozen eggs, said Sister Valentina, describing the “pioneer spirit of the first sisters there.”
“As ever, Haverty’s Furniture came to the rescue and immediately sent out beds, mattresses, bed linens, etc.,” Sister Valentina said. Lunch the first day was sent over by the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The Sisters of Mercy were in Atlanta not only as teachers but as ministers to the sick. In 1880, four Sisters of Mercy traveled from Savannah with just 50 cents in their collective purse, legend has it, to open Atlanta Hospital, the first medical facility in the city after the Civil War. Apparently now the sisters are much more accepted by the community than at the time. Sister Valentina shared how the newly arrived sisters were not even able to “rent a hack” (horse and buggy) to Courtland Avenue where the hospital was to open.
“Undaunted, they walked with their suitcases from the train station to the site. Perhaps their strange garb frightened people off?”
However, the sisters, “poor financially, but rich in spirit,” won the hearts of the community, prompting contributions that helped them to expand their facilities and services.
In 1900, Atlanta Hospital opened its nursing school and continued to train and educate nurses for 73 years. Over the years the hospital became known as Saint Joseph’s Infirmary. In the early 1970s, the board of trustees voted to move the expanded yet crowded hospital facility to a 32-acre campus in north Atlanta, renaming the facility Saint Joseph’s Hospital. The building was dedicated in 1978 and serves as a thriving medical facility with concern for “the whole person—body, mind and spirit.”
“Saint Joseph is an extension of the Mercy community and is inclusive of all,” Sister Valentina explained.
The Georgia native, who has served in the archdiocese as its superintendent of schools and the first lay woman administrator in the archdiocese at Sacred Heart Church, credits the joyful and compassionate presence of the Sisters of Mercy to the spirituality of their foundress, Catherine McAuley, an Irish heiress who used her wealth in outreach to the poor, sick and uneducated.
“Catherine was a very prayerful, faith-filled person who had a spirit of warmth, laughter and fun.”
Catherine’s father was a wealthy physician and a man of faith who had a great love for the poor. Catherine’s desire “to do good for others” put her on the path to founding the Sisters of Mercy, even though she had never set out to establish a religious community.
Like other Religious, prayer is an important part of serving others.
“You can’t do it without prayer and a close relationship with God.”
Both were important to Catherine who struggled with being left an orphan when her parents died and even later when she challenged local bishops to let her move from the accepted cloistered life of nuns to an active ministry within the community.
“She knew God would always be there.”
Today Sister Valentina continually finds inspiration in her community’s foundress who saw each person as sacred.
“As I grow in religious life I see myself grow in respect and reverence for others. … I hope to bring peace and love to each person. That’s what it’s all about.”
Congregation of St. Joseph of Carondelet
Founded: About 1650 in LePuy en Velay, France
Founder: Father Jean Pierre Medaille, SJ, with Francoise Eyraud and five women companions, under the pastoral care of Bishop Henri de Maupas
Sisters Arrived in Georgia: 1867
The Sisters of St. Joseph began their ministry to orphans in Savannah in 1867 when they arrived from France via Florida. The bishop of Savannah, Bishop Augustin Verot, a native of LePuy, France, invited the sisters to come to the United States. Their work with children of African-Americans bestowed upon them both praise and scorn. In early1876, these pioneer women left Savannah to establish their headquarters and an orphanage for boys in Washington, Ga. For almost 100 years this ministry of the sisters to homeless boys continued.
In the early 1960s, travel to Atlanta, a distance of 100 miles, became more frequent so the sisters decided to move the home for boys. The emotional and specialized needs of more and more broken families also became a factor in the decision to move and expand services at the new facility, which came to be known as The Village of St. Joseph.
During this time, the sisters were also invited to serve as teachers and as administrators of the Catholic schools popping up around Georgia. In her fruitful and varied career, Sister Loretta Costa, CSJ, a Georgia native, was assigned to schools in Savannah, Brunswick, Valdosta, Milledgeville, Augusta and Atlanta.
“(The Sisters of St. Joseph) came to Atlanta in 1884 and taught at St. Anthony’s School,” she explained.
Not long afterward, the Marist priests asked the sisters to help with Sacred Heart grade school and high school. But the opening of a coed diocesan high school, St. Pius X High School, changed the dynamics.
“We stayed until all the other parochial high schools closed. We taught at St. Pius, Blessed Sacrament, St. Anthony’s and some sisters were at St. Paul of the Cross,” Sister Loretta said. “I have wonderful memories as a teacher and principal.”
The world is different now, she noted, and also commented on the increase of lay teachers in Catholic schools.
“Lay teachers have carried on the traditions we’ve started.”
But education was not central to the mission for which the order was founded, Sister Loretta said.
The beginnings of her religious community date back to the mid-1650s when major famines and epidemics plagued France. Slowly, women were becoming more involved in the pastoral care of those in need. Father Jean Pierre Medaille, a Jesuit priest who is considered the order’s founder, directed a small group of women who took responsibility for a hospital and orphanage.
“Our order was founded in France to work in prisons, (with the poor), with prostitutes—anywhere we were needed,” said Sister Loretta. “Our garb or habit was what widows were clothed in during the1800s in France. It wasn’t something different from what others wore then.”
She credited Vatican II with “taking us back to our roots.”
“We asked ourselves, ‘are we doing what our founder wanted us to do?’”
Presently there are seven Sisters of St. Joseph in the archdiocese serving in a variety of ministries such as working with cancer patients and aiding the homeless.
“We go everywhere there is a need. We have sisters working with AIDS patients, nuns working with the homeless, nuns working with runaway youth and prostitutes.”
Now sisters work with inmates on Death Row as well as serving those in rural Nicaragua. And she appreciates the scope of the community’s ministry.
“As we live, our lives are changed. … The sisters are doing more today of what we were really founded to do.”
Sister Loretta is grateful for the diversity of ways in which she has been able to minister.
“I have to say that I really loved teaching. I loved being a principal, but I also enjoyed being with the children at the Village of St. Joseph and working with the elderly at the personal care home.”
Now a resident in a high-rise retirement home, Sister Loretta spends time with her friend Sister Angela Abood, CSJ.
“Just our presence among (the residents) means a lot. And I know that.”
For Sister Loretta and Sister Angela ministering to others seems to be a habit they have no intention of quitting.
“We’re just the little engines that could.”
And the sister acknowledged the “great contributions” of her order, saying, “We did our job well.”
The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart
Founded: 1738 in Montreal, Canada
Foundress: St. Marguerite D’Youville
Sisters Arrived in Georgia: 1937
In 1921 the American branch of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart was founded, taking up the mission of serving the poor and educating youth. Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara of the Savannah-Atlanta Diocese invited the Grey Nuns in 1937 to staff Christ the King School in Atlanta, a coed elementary school. A few months later four sisters arrived to teach in the parish religious education program prior to beginning the school year so that they would be better acquainted with parents. Enrollment was low and each sister taught a double grade, first through eighth grade. Later a girl’s high school was added.
When St. Pius X High School came into existence in 1958 the high school at Christ the King was no longer needed, and the Grey Nuns joined other Religious and laypersons at St. Pius. The rapid growth of Atlanta brought another elementary school to Atlanta, Immaculate Heart of Mary, and Bishop Francis E. Hyland invited additional Grey Nuns to help run it. In 1962, with full classrooms, Christ the King subdivided to form St. Jude the Apostle School to serve Atlantans in northwest Atlanta and so the Grey Nuns again responded by assuming educational responsibilities there.
Bishop Hyland was anxious to establish an all-girls high school, and in 1963 D’Youville Academy opened. Despite its growth, its doors closed due to a lack of religious personnel.
Today the Grey Nuns continue to serve the Catholic community. Sister Sally White, GNSH, now ministers to cancer patients at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Not only has she spent many years as a Religious with her community of Grey Nuns, they taught her at Christ the King elementary and high schools.
“The bell would ring, we’d line up outside for the flag salute, and then a lady would start a record and we’d march into school,” she reminisced. “It wasn’t silly; we took it seriously.”
She recalled the small number of students in the early years—about 75 girls in the entire school, with 22 in her graduating class. Half of them were Jewish, she said.
“We blended so well. The school was highly respected even though there was no gym, no facilities. We never advertised. The curriculum was wonderful, and all the teachers were sisters mostly. We had incredible spirit.”
Classes were held in the unfinished basement of the rectory surrounded by bare cement walls and pipes in the exposed ceiling.
At the time there was no business department because there wasn’t any money, she confided. Classes included religion, history, science and math.
“And the girls would go to wonderful colleges. …We didn’t have anything exceptional, but it was exceptional. The girls were so good. Everybody loved the school.”
At an early age Sister Sally was impressed by the nuns who had their roots in Montreal, Canada. “They had a special refinement and class about them.”
Those that came lived in “half a duplex. They had no space at all,” she said.
“They loved the South. They brought with them a special presence. I loved them because they were different. I think that’s what God used that all of us were attracted to. We saw something no one else did.”
The young Sally was one of three girls from Atlanta to discern a vocation to the religious community.
“When I entered … in September 1949, I was the first vocation from the South. … They were so excited to have three girls (entering the order).”
Asked about her decision to join the religious community, she said there was no particular moment of discernment.
“In those days most girls had a thought in high school. … I was very comfortable. Of course, though, I had no idea what I was doing. But God gave me time to grow up, to mature, overlooking my immaturity. I have absolutely no regret leaving high school then, and I had never even been out of the state of Georgia.”
While her mother was a devout Catholic, her father “had no religion.”
He never interfered with her plans to join the Grey Nuns. She recalled a time shortly after she told her parents of her future plans. Her father pulled aside an old Marist priest, Father Pat McGuire, at Sacred Heart Church.
“Whatever he said, my father let me go. When I took my religious name I took ‘Francis Maureen.’ I took (my father’s) name.”
Arriving in Philadelphia from Atlanta for her formation—a three-year training program before first vows and then three more years before final vows—was like traveling to another world.
“We went from an area where Catholics were a minority, but up there everyone identified themselves by their parish. We just had five (parishes) at the time. We were a minority and treated like minorities. But my little mother could hold her own.”
To describe the climate of skepticism many Southerners had toward Catholics, she shared how her grandfather, Victor Dorr, was one of the gentlemen to start the bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association, a publication put out to combat prejudice toward Catholics by teaching others about the Catholic faith. This became The Georgia Bulletin.
How times have changed, she explained.
“When I walk into Saint Joseph’s each day I get so excited to see my Baptist brothers and sisters. They’re so accepting.”
Sister Sally also noted the changes since Vatican II.
“As a community we were slow to move, which is in character with us. Having gone through the transition I look back and see how the changes made were incredible. The change in garb, change in ministry.”
She added, “We’ve obviously deepened spiritually. We’ve been allowed to grow up. To go out of the classroom to minister to those more in need than those in the classroom.”
A good number of sisters are involved in issues of peace and justice. “They speak out for those who have less than we do. They speak out against war, against injustices. They’re able to help God’s people in ways they didn’t in the past.”
Sister Sally pointed out, “This is what St. Paul means when he says we’re growing up in Christ. That’s what’s supposed to happen to us.”
After logging a number of hours in the classroom, Sister Sally discovered a new passion in her ministry to cancer patients, describing it as a wonderful privilege to “experience God’s people … where they are.”
Like other religious communities, their numbers have dwindled within the archdiocese.
“At our prime we were 33; now we’re at three.”
Fewer vocations to consecrated life have affected the Grey Nuns as well as other religious communities.
“Family life is so different,” she said. “Society is totally different, but that’s not to be used as an excuse. It’s a valid question –why are orders not attracting new vocations? Have we lost the mystique?”
She mentioned the wonderful contributions made by associate lay members of the religious community. And despite the changing dynamics of society there are constants.
“I think (one’s vocation) is lived out in different ways. I don’t think God’s calling ever ends. … God is there, God is active. The thing is you have to plug into it.”
Society of Mary (Marists)
Founded: 1816 in Lyons, France
Founder: Father Jean-Claude Colin
Priests Arrived in Georgia: 1897
In the early 1890s, the work of the Society of Mary, especially in the field of education, was brought to the attention of the bishop of Savannah, Bishop Thomas A. Becker. Short on diocesan priests, Bishop Becker invited the Marist Fathers to Atlanta to a parish that was first called Sts. Peter and Paul, but later renamed Sacred Heart.
The Marists opened a boys school, called Marist College, with the intent to offer young men, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, a higher education. For $12,000 they bought property in 1897 on Ivy Street. The former parish’s name changed to Sacred Heart Church, which opened in 1898 with Marist College being formally dedicated in 1901.
By 1904 accounts tell of a school enrollment of 125 boys, with the highest enrollment at the Ivy Street location being 376. Marist gradually became a military school, which was the Southern tradition at the time, and most students were not Catholic. Classes included plane and solid geometry, penmanship, English rhetoric, elocution and Greek. Catholic students attended religion and church history classes.
By 1960 the school needed to relocate in order to expand. The move also served as an opportunity to change the school’s name to The Marist School and the military aspect of the school came to an end. Eventually girls were admitted.
“Education has been important (to the Marists) from the beginning,” said Father Ted Keating, provincial of the Marists of the Atlanta Province.
He shared a little history of the religious order’s founding.
During the French Revolution when the Society of Mary, also called the Marists, formed, little preaching or catechizing was taking place. The Catholic Church was identified by most as complicit with the throne.
“Not only the Marists but great religious orders are often formed when there’s a crisis in the church. They often are dealing with people that are not being dealt with,” Father Keating said.
Forces were trying to de-Christianize France, he continued.
“A group of 12 men felt called to work with those most in need while keeping a low profile and acting with great humility and self forgetfulness.”
The priests looked to Mary to be their inspiration, as do Marists today, since Mary “comes from the margins of the poor and speaks back to the church.”
“Our charism is to be instruments of mercy, to live lives of self forgetfulness in the service of others. Mary is the model of discipleship.”
Father Keating spoke of the order’s work in faraway places such as New Zealand and other countries considered part of Oceania, where early Marist missionaries traveled and where their presence is still felt.
“People who feel marginalized by the church, or may have the perception that they are unwanted by the church and are therefore condemned by the church. …We’re at our best when we’re there.”
An important aspect of an education for schools affiliated with the Marists, such as Atlanta’s Marist School, includes igniting in them a spirit of lifelong service, whether it be by working at a soup kitchen or by traveling on a mission trip.
“We help them move more to that edge.”
Father Keating explained the important balance of instructing youth in the beauty of church teachings without “judging or chiding them.”
“In the classroom you can hammer away at them and that will push them to the edge. But you show them the meaningfulness (of church teachings) so that they understand its fullness.”
Youth then can better realize how they are able to rise above sin to a “higher level of human development to be happier and at peace,” he added.
“Disciple is a key piece,” he continued. “It means … befriending them and bringing them along, to teach them to be good Christians and to help them develop a strong internal faith … without being over-catechized. A key part is education and that’s why we have a number of schools.”
Founded: 1732 near Naples, Italy
Founder: St. Alphonsus
Priests Arrived in Georgia: 1941
Father Raymond Govern was the first resident priest in Dalton when the Redemptorist priests opened a mission there in 1941. Then others came when, in 1942, Savannah Bishop Gerald O’Hara asked the Redemptorist Fathers to accept eight counties in the northwest portion of the state of Georgia as their mission field. They arrived in Dalton on June 20, 1942. By January 1943, they were celebrating Masses in Cedartown, Dalton and Rossville.
Catholics on Lookout Mountain also requested Sunday Mass and in 1947 the Redemptorists purchased a former gambling casino on Lookout Mountain, and made it into a chapel, which later became the social hall at Our Lady of the Mount Church.
Also at the request of a small congregation in mission territory, Redemptorists came to the antebellum town of Newnan, the boyhood home of Father Jerome Chavarria, CSsR.
“I’m what you call a lifer,” said the Redemptorist, who now lives in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., and serves as the vice-provincial of the order’s Richmond Province. He began to study for the priesthood as a teenager.
“I went to the minor seminary. I left home at 14,” he said, a process that is “a thing of the past.”
Going into regions where there are few Catholics is typical of the charism of the Redemptorist community, according to Father Chavarria. He has worked with the Spanish migrant population in North Carolina, where he was born, and has traveled to the Dominican Republic and throughout the eastern and southern United States. His assignments during some of this time took him to Griffin and Hapeville, and he has preached in other areas of the archdiocese, particularly for bilingual audiences.
“Mobility” is one word he uses to describe being a priest in the Redemptorist community, which is called to minister to people who are abandoned or those in areas where there is little, if any, Catholic presence.
“It’s typical of our charism,” he explained of the order founded by St. Alphonsus, a doctor of the church, who worked among the poor while experiencing great physical suffering and setbacks during his life.
The nature of most major religious orders is to “start something, clear the way, and then turn it over to the local church.”
Coming South and also working with the African-American population served as a perfect fit with the Redemptorist mission when they first came to North Georgia, which was then all part of the Diocese of Savannah.
“Now (the Atlanta Archdiocese) is a vibrant community,” he said, which accounts for why the last Redemptorist priest left the archdiocese in 2005.
“We loved Hapeville, Griffin, Dalton—all the places. We loved Georgia. … One thing we saw when looking at the diocese, we saw that Atlanta was blessed with lots of vocations.”
He also noted the presence of priests from Colombia who are able to minister to the burgeoning Hispanic population.
“Hapeville was perfect for us. There were Hispanics, Nigerians, Vietnamese, but Atlanta was able to supply priests” in 2005.
Coupled with the increase in vocations locally was the decrease in priests within the religious community, going from 110 in 1984 down to 40 priests now serving in the Southeast—a trend other orders have experienced.
“It’s kind of like being a little general with no army,” he said light-heartedly, and explained one emerging tactic is lay associates who seek to be formed in the spirituality of the order and who contribute to their work.
He explained the decision to return the pastoral care of St. John the Evangelist Church in Hapeville to the archdiocese.
“What happened was that it became an issue of manpower, and we looked at our other criteria and there were more hard-hit places in the church where there were no priests.”
He pointed to the number of Hispanics, many of whom are migrant workers, in North Carolina, and to Catholics in South Carolina.
“We had to make a choice between who was more abandoned.”
He noted the changing dynamics in society and the strides made with Vatican II, which acknowledged that “the laity has a place in the church.”
His community welcomes and sees the enormous value of the laity’s help in their ministry.
“I see that big time with Hispanic work,” he said, adding that Spanish-speaking laity, among other things, serve to fill some of the holes when Spanish-speaking priests are unavailable.
“There’s a lot of discussion now by some who think the tradition of religious life is a thing of the past. … Personally, I think there is a place for religious orders in the church. We’re called to give, to be an extraordinary witness to the kingdom. That’s part of our motto. Giving our lives for plentiful redemption. That means self-sacrifice.”
He continued, “It’s not better; it’s a different calling. … Jesus calls us to give everything for the sake of the kingdom.”