Saving the oldest Catholic church in Georgia
A white wooden church sits beside a lonely two-lane highway in Sharon, Georgia, a town of 130 souls. It’s the oldest Catholic church in the state but no longer has any parishioners — the last Catholic there died a few months ago. In 2014, the building, a successor to the original structure, was closed for any further services.
But over the past five years, a group of laypeople from Atlanta — more than 100 miles away — has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to save the church, which has been dubbed a historic “place in peril” by the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. They’ve shored up the foundation and the joists overhead, replaced the leaking roof, repaired the towering windows, restored the wood-framed Stations of the Cross and removed lead paint. They’ve also restored the state’s oldest Catholic cemetery, Locust Grove Cemetery, reached by driving down an old dirt carriage road to a grove of oak trees.
“It’s so important, not just for kids growing up but for Catholics generally to know the Catholic Church, how it got started in Georgia, and this old church in Sharon is a wonderful throwback to the early days,” said Bill deGolian, an Atlanta-based lawyer and a leader in the lay fundraising and restoration efforts. A long-term goal is to build a heritage and retreat center near the site.
Once a station church, Purification Church for the past two years has been under the supervision of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, a change that has boosted fundraising and volunteer efforts. The archdiocese is not contributing financially to the project, which now permits a Christmas Mass and a Mass on the Feast of the Purification (Presentation), as well as an All Souls’ Day Mass in Locust Grove Cemetery, where a new altar sits amid restored grave markers.
The story of this once-abandoned cradle of Catholicity begins in 1790, when English Catholics from Maryland migrated with their slaves to Georgia in search of land. Prior to the American Revolution, Catholicism had been banned in the colony of Georgia. They were followed by French Catholics fleeing the revolution in France and the slave revolt in Haiti. Irish settlers joined them. Through the years, these Catholic families established the state’s first Catholic community in what is now Georgia’s least populated county. They started Locust Grove Cemetery in 1794 and built a log-cabin church beside it in 1801. About two decades later, the Sisters of St. Joseph opened Locust Grove Academy, the state’s first Catholic school. The log church was replaced with a larger frame structure. Eventually, the school and the church were rebuilt in nearby Sharon, where a town had developed after the railroad came through. In 1883, the current church was built.
For years, deGolian and his wife, B.J., had driven past the church on the way to their second home in Washington, Georgia. From the outside, with its simple lines and clapboard frame, Purification Church looks like one of hundreds of the country Baptist or Methodist churches that dot the backroads of Georgia. Except for its bell tower, nothing is distinctive or particularly Catholic about Purification Church’s architecture.
One day, deGolian and his wife decided to stop to read the historic marker on the highway in front of the church. They learned of the building’s history and later discovered that Mass was no longer celebrated there. “We thought, ‘We’ve got to fix that,'” he said.
The Catholic community’s history here is intertwined with the legacy of slavery in Georgia. Many of the original community members were farmers who owned enslaved peoples. Friends of Purification hired an archeologist and cadaver dogs to survey the Locust Grove Cemetery. The dogs discovered unmarked graves — likely the graves of slaves owned by the parishioners. Those graves now are marked with small stakes and red ribbons. DeGolian said his group intends to mark those graves properly, but exactly how is a delicate matter, since the people buried are unknown. However, the archdiocesan archives of the parish show that not only were slaves baptized at Purification Church, but they were also married there.
Days before Christmas last year, Fred and Jean Andrews were part of a crew of volunteers preparing the church for Mass. They are parishioners at the closest Catholic church to Purification, St. Joseph’s Church in Washington, 15 miles away. Both black Catholics, the Andrews’ family roots do not go back to Locust Groves’ early days. Still, the retired couple spoke approvingly that black and white Catholics worshipped together and were buried beside one another.
“It’s the beginning of the Catholic faith in Georgia,” said Jean Andrews. “This is it!” Fred Andrews said, “We shouldn’t lose it.” His wife added, “And all the souls are here with us.”
Allison Salerno writes from Georgia.