By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2011
Driving by the Cathedral of Christ the King on Monday, Aug. 15, one might have seen people gathered for Mass not inside the church, but on the front steps of the rectory and on the front lawn.
They were standing in the footprints of earlier generations of Catholics. The congregation prayed where exactly 75 years earlier on that date, the first Mass was celebrated for the new Christ the King Parish.
That was on Aug. 15, 1936, the feast of the Assumption. Founding pastor Father Joseph P. Moylan celebrated the church’s first Mass “on the porch of the Durant mansion,” according to an article from the archives of the Savannah Diocese.
When Savannah Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara established the parish two months earlier, some four acres of land on Peachtree Road between Wesley and Peachtree Way were purchased to build a Catholic church and school.
“To provide a nice ironic twist, the Durant family’s elegant mansion that still stood on the property had once served as national headquarters of the Catholic-hating Ku Klux Klan,” the Savannah archival piece by Rita H. DeLorme says. At the time all of Georgia was part of the Savannah Diocese.
Seventy-five years later, as Father Frank McNamee, Cathedral pastor, served as the principal celebrant of the outdoor Mass, it was of special significance to two women who came and spoke. Both had been at the first Mass.
Betty Haverty Smith is the daughter of Clarence Haverty and granddaughter of J.J. Haverty, who, along with her aunt, May Haverty, and other prominent Catholics, were instrumental in the process of establishing the parish.
Memories of listening to her father, grandfather and aunt talk about where the future parish might be located and watching it be built are fresh in her mind. Before that time Atlanta Catholics went to Mass at Sacred Heart Church or the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, both downtown.
“I was listening to all of that (discussion) at home,” she said in a telephone interview in September. “That’s what I grew up with. … I just listened to all of this. I watched it be born.”
Buckhead “was alive, but it was small. It was just a little country town with a filling station,” said Smith, who was born where the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip now stands, across the street.
As a girl, she “watched them build” Christ the King, where she would later marry Alex Smith III and they would raise their family.
“I would go over and watch them uncrate the statues,” she said. “I remember it being conceived and born.”
Her future sister-in-law, Carroll Smith Offen, 86, was also at the first Mass, when she was about 11 years old. She and her twin sister, Joanie, were in the first group of students at Christ the King School and because they were in the top grade, their group inaugurated every new grade as the school grew. They were attending Sacred Heart School before the new school opened, nearer their home.
“We went all the way through to the 12th grade and there were just nine of us in the class,” Offen said in a telephone interview.
Catholics were so small a group in her girlhood, Offen said, that “to be Catholic in Georgia was just weird.”
She says her late mother, Laura Payne Smith, was “a very active and enthusiastic Catholic.” Her Catholic forebearers came from Virginia to New Orleans and then Atlanta. Her father, Alex Smith Jr., was an attorney.
Laura Payne Smith gave the statue of St. Ann to Christ the King and was “there every day when the door opened,” her daughter said. “Her Catholicism was rock solid.”
As a student at Christ the King School, Offen was chosen to “memorize a little speech” and present a spiritual bouquet to Cardinal Dennis Dougherty of Philadelphia when he came to dedicate the completed church, the Co-Cathedral of Christ the King on Jan. 18, 1939. Pope Pius XI had issued a proclamation in January 1937, changing the Diocese of Savannah to the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta and elevating the parish to co-cathedral status.
Because the bishop of Savannah at the time, Bishop O’Hara, was from Philadelphia, she said he chose a Philadelphia architectural firm, Henry D. Dagit & Sons, to design the Cathedral, which was praised as “the most beautiful building in Atlanta” by Architectural Record Magazine in 1939.
Despite outward changes in 75 years, she said, the essence of her faith is unchanged.
“The Eucharist is the heart of my faith,” she said.