By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 12, 2016
SHARON—The oldest parish site in the Atlanta Archdiocese is undergoing a preservation effort with the hope of drawing people to what its supporters call “the cradle of Catholic Georgia.”
Built in 1883, the wood-frame Church of the Purification, located some 100 miles east of Atlanta, is the focus of a conservation campaign. The Friends of Purification group began in 2012 to promote the history of the site, which dates back to 1790, and to raise restoration funds for its fragile 19th century church building. The effort made headlines when The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation named Purification Church to its 2014 list of “Places in Peril,” recognizing its historic significance that was at risk.
Bill deGolian, a leader with the effort, said time is critical to shore up the building.
“It is important to start the restorations now because the rate of deterioration of the building has accelerated over the last couple of years and we want our supporters to see some results from their financial contributions. Archbishop Gregory’s presence was a huge plus. The archdiocese is giving its full support to this undertaking. But needless to say, we are excited to stabilize it and get it back into use,” said deGolian.
On Thursday, May 5, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory joined about 60 others at a groundbreaking. During the ceremony, the archbishop prayed for the safety of the workers doing the effort. He reminded the crowd of the Book of Psalms’ wisdom that unless a structure is built by the Lord, the effort is in vain.
The next step to save the church is about to get underway. The first project is to shore up the building’s foundation. Preservationists also will be replacing the roof and repairing the damaged bell tower. The original double-hung wood windows will be restored to working order. The electrical and mechanical systems will also be upgraded as appropriate.
The $200,000 restoration work is to be done by general contractors R.W. Allen Co. The two-month project was to begin May 9, said deGolian.
The goal is to restore the historic building to its 1883 appearance. It serves as a station church of St. Joseph Church, in Washington, but supporters want to upgrade it so it can be used for liturgical services. The longer-term goal is to develop the Church of the Purification into a heritage destination and retreat center.
Another goal is to develop an educational component for Catholic schools, encouraging students to visit and see their faith’s Georgia roots, he said.
Catholicism planted in Georgia
The first Church of the Purification served English Catholics from Baltimore who arrived in what is now Taliaferro County to establish a farming community. The community came to be known as Locust Grove. The original 1790 church was a simple log cabin building. A cemetery next to it was started in 1794.
The next wave was French Catholics fleeing the revolution in their country, followed by Irish Catholics. Between 1818 and 1821, the Sisters of St. Joseph, a French order, arrived and established the first Catholic school in Georgia, chartered as Locust Grove Academy. Three governors of Georgia were educated there. In 1821, the original church was replaced by a larger structure. Locust Grove in the 1840s was the center of Catholic life in Georgia.
But that changed within a generation, as the railroad altered the community. A railroad line to the west made Sharon more attractive. Settlers selected that community and Locust Grove shrunk. In 1877, the Church of the Purification relocated to Sharon. The wood frame church was dismantled for the move. The current church was built in 1883.