Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Sacred Heart parishioner Louise Florencourt is the first cousin of the late Flannery O'Connor. Her mother Agnes and Flannery's mother Regina were sisters. Florencourt was born in Savannah, but she was raised in Massachusetts, where she attended Radcliffe College and Harvard Law School. Photo By Michael Alexander


New Endowment Will Preserve Flannery’s Church

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published May 28, 2009

At the corner of North Jefferson and East Hancock, the historic brick church stands. Stepping inside, time seems to have been its friend. Even empty of people, it is filled with warmth, as if imbued with the prayers and the devotion of ordinary Catholics who marked each season of their lives at Sacred Heart Church, and whose children and grandchildren later came along to do the same.

The first Mass was celebrated in Milledgeville in 1845 at the hotel residence of Hugh Treanor. When the church was dedicated in 1874, the cornerstone credits the efforts of his wife, Joanna. The Treanor home was once across the street.

Louise Florencourt is one of the Treanors’ great- granddaughters.

At the church on May 15, she graciously pointed out historical markers and described architectural details that she remembers as they once were: a religious oil painting that once hung behind the altar; solid oak pews that were replaced in the modern era; antique glass windows salvaged from the famous hotel that previously stood on the site; a beautiful altar rail.

Although those historical features are gone, the original pressed tin ceiling is still visible and the altar is the same, as is the brickwork, whose details, if closely examined, reveal the first footprint of the church, as well as a 1910 renovation. A wooden staircase leads to the choir loft, where her great aunt played the organ, and interesting photographs from earlier years are mounted on the walls.

Her mother, Agnes, was the sister of Regina Cline O’Connor, making her a cousin to Mrs. O’Connor’s only child, Flannery, the celebrated writer.

Honoring a directive from the estate of Regina O’Connor, which created a trust in memory of Flannery, $200,000 has been given to the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia this spring to create an endowment fund, also named for Flannery, to preserve Sacred Heart Church.

“This is Regina’s gift,” Ms. Florencourt said. “Sacred Heart Church was one of four charitable entities she specifically named.”

Flannery O’Connor died of complications from lupus at the age of 39. She is buried at the Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville. Photo By Michael Alexander

The church naturally was a place she thought of as a part of family history and generosity, going back to the 1800s and her grandparents’ role as founders. She and her husband were married there and both, along with Flannery, were buried from there.

“The family was one of a few who supported the parish when there were just a handful of people here. They were faithful Catholics and they supported the church during those years,” Ms. Florencourt said.

Also, Flannery’s fiction was shaped by her Catholic faith and many who visit Milledgeville studying her writing seek out the church where she prayed.

While Mrs. O’Connor selected Sacred Heart, Ms. Florencourt said that she and her late sister, as trustees, specifically decided to commit the funds toward ensuring that Sacred Heart Church will be preserved, if and when the parish outgrows the historic church and needs to build a new church in another location.

“Mrs. O’Connor wanted to assure this church structure would be saved as long as it could be used for the liturgy. Mrs. O’Connor’s funds would be used to support it when it is no longer used as a (parish) church,” she said.

“It is all in the future. It cannot be used now,” she added.

The estate of Regina O’Connor, the mother of Flannery OÕConnor, created a fund in memory of Flannery, the Georgia-born, Catholic writer who died in 1964. On a directive from the estate, $200,000 has been given to the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia to create an endowment to preserve the 135-year-old Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville. Photo By Michael Alexander

Father Michael McWhorter, pastor, said that the more than 300 families in the parish “love the little church,” which seats 125 people. He celebrates four Masses each weekend to accommodate parishioners and even so at times people have to sit in the attached parish hall with a side view of the altar. Catholic students at Georgia State College and University now number more than 200, when there used to be a handful, he said.

There is no activity right now on the topic because the parish loves the church so much, but he said Ms. Florencourt’s view that some day a larger church might have to be built is valid. The current site is in an historic district and expansion isn’t possible.

If and when the day comes, the pastor said, with the endowment fund’s assistance, “this would still be here as a chapel” for daily Mass and other sacraments. Ms. Florencourt’s concern, he said, is that the upkeep would be covered if parishioners had to turn their support to building and sustaining a larger church.

Born in Savannah, like her cousin, Ms. Florencourt’s family moved to Massachusetts when she was young, while the O’Connors went to Milledgeville.

“We came back here every summer,” Ms. Florencourt said, and Flannery “came to visit us in the north several times.”

The two Florencourt sisters and Flannery were about the same age, she said.

When the families got together, there could be as many as eight cousins in the family house, playing summertime games.

“We just had a good time, really doing nothing,” she recalled. “The sidewalks weren’t paved and the streets weren’t paved. We would walk down and through the cemetery. There was a little clear, clean stream, not deep at all. It was filled with minnows and had a sandy bottom. We took a fishing pole. We never caught anything, but it was something to do.”

Flannery graduated from college in Milledgeville and began writing while living in the North.

When she was diagnosed with lupus, she returned to Milledgeville and spent her remaining years there, living with her mother on Andalusia farm four miles out of town and writing.

“Flannery and Regina attended (Sacred Heart Church) regularly,” Ms. Florencourt said.

In April, an international conference was held at a pontifical university in Rome, Italy, to discuss Flannery’s writings. Ms. Florencourt attended and expressed her awe at the range and depth of interest in O’Connor’s short stories and novels, 45 years after her death at the age of 39.

“I think it is wonderful. What is amazing is the things—the subjects—people can get from Flannery’s works. One of the plenary speakers from Baylor University gave a talk on ‘Flannery, Benedict XVI and the Divine Eros,’” she said.

She said the grotesque characters and Southern Gothic style of O’Connor’s fiction resonated with some in Milledgeville, but perhaps not Catholics, when first published in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“I think when her first book came out, and most people were shocked, … I think it was the Protestants here in town, the Bible readers, (who) understood what she was talking about.”

Flannery herself is the most reliable guide to the meaning of her writing and to her Catholic faith, Ms. Florencourt said.

Louise Florencourt, center, stands with Nancy Coveny, left, executive director of the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, and Diane Duquette, archdiocesan director of gift planning, inside Flannery O’Connor Hall, which is adjacent to Sacred Heart Church. Photo By Michael Alexander

“If anyone wants to know what Flannery meant, they should read her own words in ‘Mystery and Manners,’” she said, referring to a collection of O’Connor lectures and essays edited by her friends Robert and Sally Fitzgerald and published after her death.

Also insightful is the introduction O’Connor wrote to “A Memoir of Mary Ann,” a book by Hawthorne Dominican nuns about a child who lived at the cancer home in Atlanta.

“The introduction … expresses a lot about what Flannery thought of her Christian faith and what she thought about God’s permitting a child to be born with this affliction,” her cousin said.

A graduate of Radcliffe College, Ms. Florencourt went on to Harvard Law School, one of 12 women among 500 men in the class of 1953. She practiced law in her home state and in Washington, D.C., retiring in 1987 and moving to Milledgeville to live with Mrs. O’Connor, who died in 1995.

Nancy Coveny, executive director of the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia, said the endowment fund in memory of Flannery O’Connor is the kind of personal and long-lasting expression of a donor’s vision that the foundation can help bring about.

“For donors who want the gift to last into perpetuity, the Catholic Foundation is the right place to come,” she said. “Families who want to do something in honor or memory of someone special can do that. … Endowments are managed by the Catholic Foundation for our archdiocesan community. We oversee how the funds are invested. We distribute the earnings as outlined in the agreement. Most parishes don’t have the time or the expertise to do that, so we do that for them.”

People can also donate to existing funds through the Catholic Foundation, and the income from these funds is distributed in grants to local Catholic entities.

“We are very grateful to Ms. Florencourt for facilitating this gift to help Sacred Heart Church in Milledgeville, and we are grateful that she chose the Catholic Foundation in order to do that,” she said.