By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published October 29, 2021
SHARON—The Purification Heritage Center, a quiet space rich in Catholic history, welcomes guests as its expansion continues.
Located some 100 miles east of Atlanta, the center immerses visitors in the history of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church, Locust Grove Cemetery and life of early Catholics in Georgia.
The Purification Heritage Center consists of four spiritual places—the iconic Purification Church; Purification Cemetery; Locust Grove Cemetery, the oldest Catholic cemetery in Georgia; and Heritage Preserve, the farmland of the first Catholic settlers.
The mission of the center is to “provide a welcoming Catholic environment that serves local and faith communities through beauty, peace and historical connection.” Its vision and motto is “a sacred place to seek, find and renew faith.”
In 2014, the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation added Purification Church to its list of “Places in Peril.” Later that year, Friends of the Purification, consisting of mostly lay Catholics, initiated a campaign to save the church.
Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Purification Heritage Center was able to continue its expansion plans.
“It’s just a miracle,” said Betsy Orr, board president of the center. “Everybody stayed well and everybody was healthy and able to keep working. It’s a blessing. I’m incredibly, incredibly thankful.”
For the first restoration campaign, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church was updated. This included replacing and restoring windows, removing lead paint and rotten wood, repainting, restoring the bell tower and bringing the building up to code. The Locust Grove Cemetery was also cleaned. For Heritage Preserve, this included addition of a picnic pavilion, rosary garden, welcome area with bathroom and parking spaces.
On Sept. 11, Purification Heritage Center welcomed 120 people, including Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., to the campus for a blessing of the new Seven Sorrows Walk, which follows periods of the Blessed Mother’s life when her suffering, prompted by her son Jesus, were the most intense.
The event marked the completion of the second phase of the restoration process, which included a pond, dock house, barn, property manager cabin, bathrooms, walking trails and prayer stands at the Heritage Preserve.
With two phases completed, the third is underway. This includes an event center, which will include a commercial kitchen, office space, classrooms, a grab-and-go market, retail shop and a chapel to seat 20 people.
Also in the third phase is the last prayer space called Via Lucis or “Way of Light,” the 14 appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. With the completion of Via Lucis, the center will have 26 biblical meditations on site that include art and sculpture.
In addition to infrastructure, phase three also includes cottages of various sizes, providing an overnight option for guests. Designed for silent retreats, getaways and more privacy, these cottages will loop around the event center. Up to 50 or 60 people will be able to stay overnight once the cottages are completed.
Phase three began in late summer and is expected to be complete in fall 2023. The fourth phase includes a 15- to 20-acre farm which will grow crops for Taliaferro County, home of the Purification Heritage Center.
“Taliaferro County is very impoverished and also it’s a food desert,” said Orr. “There’s not a lot of good fresh food there … we really see service to the community through this farm.”
Not only will the farm help the community, the planned farming grounds are in the same location where the original Catholic farmers grew crops in the late 1700s.
“It’s a beautiful, historic connection to the original settlement,” said Orr.
The fourth phase also includes a revival of Locust Grove Academy, the first Catholic school in Georgia. While it will not operate as a complete school, it will be a resource to teach student groups about prayer, the history of Catholics in Georgia, farming and agriculture. Construction on phase four will begin in early 2023, with hopes to plant crops in 2024.
A soft opening is scheduled for September 2023 with a grand opening on Feb. 2-3, 2024, which coincides with the feast day of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “It is so rewarding because we can actually see our progress,” said Orr.
Until the openings, Catholics are invited to visit the Purification Heritage Center.
The center welcomes groups for day retreats and will help arrange overnight accommodations outside of the center. The annual All Souls’ Mass will be held at Locust Grove Cemetery on Nov. 6 at 11 a.m.