By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 6, 2008
A group of volunteers will work to reclaim one of the rural historic Catholic cemeteries in Georgia, with a goal to restore stone markers to unmarked graves and return the burial ground to its original appearance.
“It’s an obligation. As Catholics, one of our corporal works of mercy is to bury our dead and remember them and honor their bodies as temples of the Lord,” said Deacon Ray Egan, who oversees Catholic cemeteries.
“We honor our ancestors and our dead. It is important that their place of rest is respected,” he said.
The Catholic cemetery getting the attention is known as the Sparta Cemetery, in Hancock County, some two hours east of Atlanta.
Historic sites such as the one at Sparta highlight the early roots of the Catholic Church in the Deep South.
The cemetery is one of five historic Catholic cemeteries in the archdiocese. Four of them are located east of Atlanta; one is in Carroll County, west of Atlanta. They were established more than 100 years before the archdiocese was created in 1962.
Inside the walls of all of these cemeteries are graves that tell stories of the Catholic settlers in a predominately Protestant state. In Purification Cemetery are the remains of a priest who drowned in a storm while making a sick call. Within Locust Grove are graves of dozens of Irish-born Catholics. Julia Rado, who died at the age of 1 in 1901, is remembered as “Another Angel ” at Budapest Cemetery.
The first designated Catholic cemetery is Locust Grove, about three miles from present day Sharon. The site is the oldest Catholic cemetery in the state. Its significance was recognized in recent years when it was put on the National Register of Historic Places.
As job opportunities moved, so did the Catholic community. In new locations, the worshippers needed a place to bury loved ones, said Deacon Egan, who works for the archdiocese.
Purification Cemetery was established next. Located about five miles away from Locust Grove, the cemetery is about one-third full and burials are still made there. St. Patrick Cemetery in Washington is the third cemetery.
The other historic cemetery is known as “Budapest,” close to the Alabama state line. It was used by many Eastern European Catholics for burials.
Not much information is available about the small, neglected Sparta Cemetery, situated behind the town hall. Within the acre and a quarter plot are 10 known graves, including that of one child. Black people and white people were buried here, according to the Web site of the Friends of Hancock County Cemeteries. The cemetery dates to 1869.
The cemetery is in “terrible shape,” according to the Web site. Trees and brush cover about half of the property and must be removed, said the deacon.
This effort will be done with care. The groups are trying to repair damage done by a renovation project a few years ago that harmed the property, Deacon Egan said. A large pile of debris on the property is to be searched to look for tombstones that were knocked over.
A work group will go to Sparta on Saturday, Nov. 8, to clear a portion of the cemetery. Volunteers from the Knights of Columbus in Athens, Dunwoody and Greensboro are doing the work.
Deacon Egan said the weekend cleaning is the first goal. He said he would eventually like to restore the cemetery’s landscape to its original condition.
One long-term goal is to use special radar equipment to help locate gravesites. The radar will also be used to find any buried stone markers. If the stones are still legible, people in the graves may be identified, he said.
For more information about the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Cemeteries and other related ministries, go to www.archatl.com/offices/cemeteries.