Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Photo by Gilbert Davila
A historic photo of Sacred Heart Church, Milledgeville, was displayed as the community gathered for a festive lunch following the 150th anniversary of the parish June 9. It is one of the oldest churches in the archdiocese.


Sacred Heart at 150: Celebrating roots and growth 

By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published July 11, 2024

MILLEDGEVILLE—Elizabeth “Lizzie” Odom has a three-generation connection and reverence for the Sacred Heart parish, stemming from her childhood. The 36-year-old mother of four grew up here and is involved in ministry, particularly religious education.  

Making her way into Sunday Mass through the solid wooden Gothic door, she knows the people in the pews and their stories.   

“The people there really are the gems, and the simplicity of it I love so much,” said Odom.  

Her children were baptized and her oldest received first communion, as she did, and her mother was baptized and married here. In 2023, her husband joined the Catholic Church at the parish.  

“As I’ve gotten older the depth and the knowledge of how special of a place it is to me has grown,” she said.  

Red brick with a towering steeple, Sacred Heart Church sits on the edge of the downtown Milledgeville business district, within view of the antebellum state capitol building.  

This year marks the church’s 150th anniversary. About two hours southeast of Atlanta, the church is one of the oldest in the archdiocese.  

The longevity of the believers is a sign of resilience and faithfulness for Father Bryan Kuhr. 

“It wasn’t easy being Catholic here in the south, in the old south,” said Father Kuhr, who became the pastor in 2023. He reflected that Catholics in the area persevered in the face of anti-Catholic bias. 

For him, the story of their faith resembles Jesus’ parable about how “that small mustard seed has bloomed.”  

The past and the future  

According to parish history, the first Mass in Milledgeville was recorded in April 1845 in a room at the Newell Hotel. Some three decades later, bids were accepted to build a church. The bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, which covered all the state at the time, dedicated the building in June 1874. It’s the same building that stands now. Some 300 families belong here. 

 The original pressed tin ceiling is still visible. The altar remains largely the same. The brickwork reveals the original church footprint and a 1910 expansion. Sunlight streams through the simple peaked windows. A wooden staircase leads to the original choir loft. Twin chandeliers added as part of a renovation hang from the ceiling. For its historic significance, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.   

It is a stopping point for literary tourists. Known as renowned Southern fiction author Flannery O’Connor’s home parish, visitors can worship in the same sacred space as the Catholic writer. In 2009, honoring a directive of her mother, Regina O’Connor, a $200,000 endowment fund was started with the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia to preserve Sacred Heart Church.  

Waves of newcomers filled the wood pews starting in the 1960s when Cuban refugees, many of them doctors, took positions at Central State Hospital, and others came over time. A number of Filipino and Vietnamese families arrived in the 1970s. When an aerospace company relocated to the area from Long Island, many New Yorkers came with it. Now, nearby Lake Sinclair and Lake Oconee attract retirees.   

“It’s very rooted. It’s going to be like a tight knit family,” said Father Kuhr. “I think even more so in Milledgeville.” This anniversary is a “moment of grace” for the community, he said.  

Ordained for seven years, he is serving as a pastor for the first time, spending his initial year getting to know the parish and its customs.  

Outward-focused, the priest aims to engage students attending Georgia College & University and invite Catholics who have left the church to return. He sees it as both a hopeful goal and a challenge to “evangelize, engage the community and invite people to experience the Catholic faith.”   

The statue of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba, is displayed in the Flannery O’Connor Social Hall and commemorates the Cuban community’s special history in the parish. Photo By Michael Alexander

Lydia Maria Grimes, 71, moved here with her Cuban parents in 1968. They had fled the island country two years earlier. Named after her mother, she is known as Lily. They were among the medical staff who found work at the mental hospital. The church was the one and only place to practice their faith, so the family settled in. Grimes has cherished its traditions, playing a role as a wedding coordinator and Sunday school teacher. Grimes has two grown children.   

A small statue of Our Lady of Charity, an important Cuban Marian devotion, is displayed on special occasions such as funerals. It is otherwise kept in the sacristy.   

For her, the creaky church building is the heart of the community.  

“You can just sit there in adoration, and it literally is talking to you,” she said.  

As part of the influx of New Yorkers, Mike McCabe has watched over the parish’s Helping Hands Society for close to 20 years. His family, which grew to four children, moved here from Long Island in 1982.  

“I say the church is probably more like a chapel,” he said, compared to sprawling parishes in his home state.  

The parish outreach serves residents of Baldwin County, which is poorer than most of the state. According to government statistics, about 23% of people in the county live in poverty compared to almost 13% in the state.   

With the help of parishioners, the ministry McCabe leads gives away about 160 Christmas gifts to underprivileged families, in addition to Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets with meals.    

Helping Hands aids an average of 100-140 clients per year. Last year, its assistance distributed about $64,000 to people facing financial crisis, he said.  

“You realize there are a lot of people out there that need our help. We get cards from people we help, sometimes thanking us. Sometimes they’re in here, they want hugs and prayers when we’re helping them,” he said.  

Mary and John Short are part of the crowd of retirees attracted to the area. They have been members of the church for 18 months, moving from western New York. Mary, 69, a retired early childhood educator, said the church members embraced the couple and made them feel welcome from the start. John was quickly recruited to join the local Knights of Columbus council and she is a member the Council of Catholic Women.  

“We love worshiping here. The parish is moving forward,” she said.  

John Hargaden and his late wife Mary moved to the small city in 1968, intending to stay briefly as a chemistry professor at the Georgia College & State University. However, he ended up settling permanently. A native of Ireland, Hargaden, 84, speaks with a brogue. Their son, Father Kevin Hargaden, was ordained a priest for the Atlanta Archdiocese in 1999.   

Catholics made up a minority of the community when he arrived more than 50 years ago.  

“In those early days, of course, Sacred Heart was not as big a parish as it is now. The church was the same. It was very, I guess I would call it old fashioned,” said Hargaden.  

Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv., joined Father Bryan Kuhr, pastor of Scared Heart, and former pastor Msgr. Hugh Marren, for the church’s 150th anniversary Mass with Deacon Cesar Basilio serving. Photo by Victoria Basilio

For him, the next challenge facing the parish is how to accommodate the church members with the small sanctuary. A larger church has been a goal for several pastors as the community has grown, but appropriate land has been hard to find, said the longtime member of the finance council.  

Encountering the Lord in the people 

More than 300 people attended the anniversary Mass and luncheon June 9, including Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, OFM Conv. He, along with Father Kuhr, was joined at the altar by former pastor, Msgr. Hugh Marren at the celebration, which filled the small church to capacity while others watched from an overflow room. Deacon Cesar Basilio served at the Mass.

In his prepared remarks, the archbishop encouraged people to be grateful for the people who shaped the faith community as they illustrated a deeper truth.   

“Sacred Heart has been part of your lives, in times of joy and times of sorrow,” said the archbishop. “Yet, for all of the memories that we hold this day, for as meaningful as this sacred space is, when we recall events that have taken place in our lives in relationship to Sacred Heart, we are more likely to recall certain people than merely a place–perhaps a priest, a sister, a relative or a friend.  And at the heart of such memories are found the deepest mysteries of our faith and the Eucharist itself. It is here that you encounter the Lord, not only in the Eucharist, but also in the Word that is proclaimed, in the priest and in the congregation.”  

With her growing family, Odom expected to welcome her fourth child in weeks. She hopes the parish continues growing while holding on to its intimate, multi-generational character.  

She knows the statistics about a greater number of people leaving the church, not to mention the misunderstandings about the Catholic faith among the Protestant community. For her, Sacred Heart Church remains a place with great promise.  

“We have so many gold mines in our little parish. It’s like little gems, and we just have to figure out how to string it together.”