By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published August 4, 2016
SMYRNA—With the signing of a few documents on July 20, Cathedral of Christ the King parishioner Betsy Orr became owner of 200 acres surrounding the historic Locust Grove cemetery in Taliaferro County.
The cemetery, dating to 1794, is where many of the earliest Roman Catholic settlers are buried and is the oldest Catholic cemetery in Georgia. The Archdiocese of Atlanta retains ownership of the cemetery itself.
Orr, representing her family’s limited partnership, purchased the land surrounding the cemetery from the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Proceeds will begin to provide for restoration and perpetual care of Locust Grove and two other historic Catholic cemeteries.
The price of just over $380,000 was determined by the current market value of the land set by an appraiser.
For Orr, the purchase was a way to give back to her Church. The Atlanta native became a Catholic in 2008 at Holy Spirit Church.
“Being received into the Church is the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Orr. “It’s helped me through some family crises … my husband’s death.”
The document signing to make the land sale official was held at the Chancery of the archdiocese in Smyrna.
“This is a happy occasion,” remarked Bill deGolian, chairman of The Friends of Purification Church committee.
The purchase puts the land into “friendly hands” for the future, said deGolian.
“Betsy Orr is our hero. She stepped up in buying this land,” he said.
Restoration projects will benefit
The Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary was first located at Locust Grove, later rebuilt, moved to nearby Sharon in 1877 and rebuilt again in 1883.
The Friends of Purification group, formed in 2012, promotes the site’s history and works to fund restoration of the church structure.
One year ago, deGolian and his wife took Orr out to tour the church and the Locust Grove grounds.
Orr said she had driven through the area many times but never realized the cemetery was there.
“It’s very moving to find this cemetery, this land off a dirt road,” she said.
Orr questioned if she could buy the property and ultimately suggested timber growth and harvesting as a way in the long term to generate additional proceeds for projects highlighting this historic Catholic area.
“Timber is a big crop in that part of Georgia,” explained deGolian. “There is some scrub timber on the land now.”
The existing timber would be harvested and sold, and new trees planted for eventual harvest in future years. A timber harvest takes a decade or more, he said.
Proceeds from the land sale will fund several projects: restoration work at Locust Grove, at the cemetery at Church of the Purification in Sharon, and at St. Patrick cemetery in nearby Washington. St. Patrick was the name of the first parish in Washington, now called St. Joseph Church.
The proceeds will also endow a fund at the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia for perpetual care of the burial sites. It is hoped that the funds will also assist St. Joseph Church in Washington in making needed repairs to its foundation in the amount of $100,000.
“St. Joseph in Washington has a very serious foundational problem. It’s a tiny parish with not many families,” said deGolian. “It’s a win-win all the way around. It’s the Holy Spirit working.”
Sharon church restoration begins
Although the land sale does not directly benefit restoration of the Church of the Purification, it does highlight the ongoing restoration work there, said deGolian.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory joined preservationists for a May 5 groundbreaking ceremony at the white frame church to mark the beginning of restoration projects.
Archbishop Gregory acknowledged that most of the work needed is of the unseen type or structural in nature, and he urged Catholics to back the restoration.
“I hope that you will continue to support it, first of all with your prayers that it does reach a successful conclusion and then through your generous financial support,” said the archbishop.
In the last two months, workers have reinforced overhead ceiling joists, added gutters and downspouts, a new roof, and strengthened the bell tower. The church is now “earthquake-proof,” said deGolian.
There has been a reworking of the HVAC system, and the windows are now operative. Inside, the Stations of the Cross have been taken down for cleaning and restorative work. He said phase one of the renovations is done.
The next phase will involve exterior paint removal and repainting and will be very costly because the old paint contained lead.
“Whenever you are removing lead paint, the EPA is involved,” explained deGolian.
A 2014 designation of the church as “a place in peril” by The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation helped the cause.
“It lent us credibility. We’re going out to foundations now,” said deGolian about seeking grants.
Individual donors can give to the effort online at www.savepurificationchurch.com.
Supporters envision heritage center
Another “tentacle” of the project is the plan to develop an eighth-grade targeted curriculum on the first Catholic church in Georgia, telling the stories of the people who lived nearby and the priests who served there. Orr and deGolian would like to see a heritage center established for Catholic school students to visit.
“Although I’m not a historian, the idea of other Catholics understanding is really important to me,” said Orr. “I’m excited about that. Then, as we teach people about the history, they can come out and see it for themselves.”
The heritage center would be a place anyone interested in Georgia history could learn about the Locust Grove and Sharon communities as well as Catholicism.
“I think it will build some bridges of understanding between people,” said Orr.
She said the Locust Grove tract could eventually be home to a retreat center or campground for parish groups.
DeGolian noted that many prominent Catholic families of Georgia, including those of authors Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Mitchell, have family ties to the Church of the Purification and surrounding communities.
He would also like Georgians to learn more about the work of the church’s longtime pastor, Father Peter Whelan. He served there for nearly two decades leading up to the Civil War.
An Irish priest, Father Whelan was an expert farmer.
“He was a chaplain for the Confederate Army,” said deGolian. “He asked to be assigned to Andersonville to the prisoners there.”
In the hellish conditions of the POW camp in Andersonville, Father Whelan brought wonderful comfort to the men. He was lovingly called the “Angel of Andersonville,” he noted.
The Friends of Purification Committee hopes that the church will soon be ready for Mass and other celebrations such as baptisms. Currently, it is a station church of St. Joseph in Washington.
Father Stephen Lyness, pastor of St. Joseph Church and Queen of Angels Church in Thomson, has celebrated All Souls Day Masses at the Locust Grove cemetery for the last two years.
The work to maintain the land and church is “so important for the Catholic heritage” of Georgia, emphasized deGolian.
“You just get a sense of the deep roots of Catholicism in Georgia,” said deGolian about visiting the Sharon and Locust Grove sites.
“The cemetery to me is so striking. You truly realize it is holy ground. It is so quiet, so peaceful,” he said.
Mary Anne Castranio contributed to this story.