Savannah, Diocese of
SAVANNAH, DIOCESE OF
The Diocese of Savannah (Savannensis ), suffragan of the metropolitan See of Atlanta, covers 60 percent of Georgia and accounts for about one-third of the Catholics in the state. The original diocese, created in 1850, included the states of Georgia and Florida. In 1937 the name was changed to Savannah-Atlanta and remained so until Nov. 8, 1956, when, with the erection of Atlanta as a separate jurisdiction, the original title was resumed. In the year 2000 the diocese had seven vicariates forane or deaneries: Albany, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, Savannah, Statesboro, and Valdosta-Brunswick.
Although Spanish Catholics met with considerable success in evangelizing the Guale people in the area, the founding of the British colony of Georgia in 1733 and General James Oglethorpe's victory over the Spanish at the Battle of the Bloody Marsh (1742) ensured the ascendancy of Protestantism in the 13th British colony. Until the end of the Revolutionary War, Catholicism was officially proscribed in Georgia; religious toleration for Catholics became a reality only with American independence.
About 1790, a group of Catholics from Maryland settled in Locust Grove, near Washington, Georgia. Father Jean le Moyne, a refugee from the French and Haitian Revolutions, became their pastor, with responsibility for Catholics in the entire state. The first entry (1796) in the baptismal register of the Congrégation de St. Jean le Baptiste in Savannah records Father Olivier le Mercier blessing Le Moyne's grave. Le Mercier served the needs of a Catholic population that included many French refugees like himself. On May 30, 1799, the Mayor and Aldermen of Savannah passed a resolution reserving half a trust lot for the congregation's use. One year later, on May 30, 1800, Le Mercier laid the cornerstone for the small frame Church of St. John the Baptist. On May 30, 1801, the Legislature of Georgia incorporated the "Roman Catholic Church of Savannah"; Governor Josiah Tattnall, Jr., signed the act on Nov. 30, 1801. The total number of Catholics in the city of Savannah was approximately 100. In December 1803, Father Antoine Carles arrived in Savannah and remained in Georgia for over 16 years.
When John England became the first Bishop of Charleston in 1820, his new diocese included Georgia as well as both the Carolinas. The Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, founded by England in 1829, came to Savannah to establish St. Vincent's Academy in 1845.
In 1850, Pope Pius IX established the Diocese of Savannah, with Francis X. Gartland as its first bishop. The diocese included both Georgia and Florida, until 1857, when the Vicariate Apostolic of Florida was established. The brick Church of St. John the Baptist, on Drayton Street, the seat of the only parish in Savannah, was designated the cathedral. With the opening of a parish at St. Mary's, Georgia, there were now six parishes in the state. In 1854, Gartland died while ministering to his people during a yellow fever epidemic, shortly after the death of his friend, the missionary Bishop Edward barron, who had come to Savannah to assist him. In 1857, Bishop John barry, who had been the pastor in Augusta, took over the leadership of the diocese, but died in Paris in 1859, while raising funds.
Augustine verot, Vicar Apostolic of Florida, became the third Bishop of Savannah in 1861, while remaining in charge of the church in Florida. Despite the disruptions caused by the Civil War, the "Rebel Bishop" established a second parish in Savannah, St. Patrick's, for the influx of Irish immigrants. With Verot's permission, Father Peter Whelan, captured when Fort Pulaski fell to the Union, served as chaplain in the famous prisoner of war camp at Andersonville where he ministered to Union soldiers as well as to Confederates. At Verot's request, the Sisters of St. Joseph came from his native Le Puy, France, to minister to Georgia's freed slaves in 1866.
In 1870, during the First Vatican Council, Verot was transferred to the new diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, and the Capuchin missionary Bishop Ignatius persico took his place in Savannah. Persico founded churches in Brunswick and Darien, and made the preliminary plans for building a new Cathedral of St. John the Baptist on Lafayette Square. In 1871, Benedictines from St. Vincent Abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania arrived to work among the newly freed slaves. Their monastery and school at Skidaway Island failed, but they founded two successful parishes and schools (St. Benedict's and Sacred Heart) in Savannah.
Redemptorist Bishop William gross succeeded Persico, who resigned for reasons of health in 1873. During his tenure, the new cathedral was built in Savannah. Gross published a diocesan newspaper, The Southern Cross, 1875–1877. A Jesuit seminary was established in Macon and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart came to teach in Augusta. Mother Mary Ignatius of Jesus (Elizabeth Hayes), foundress of the Missionary Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, came to Georgia in 1878, "to work solely and entirely for the poor colored people." Gross was promoted to Archbishop of Oregon City (now Portland), Oregon, in 1885.
Bishop Thomas A. becker of Wilmington, Del., was transferred to Savannah as the diocese's sixth bishop. He invited the Marist Fathers to work in Brunswick (1897); they remained for nine decades. During Becker's time, the Little Sisters of the Poor opened their home for the elderly in Savannah, and the Jesuits opened St. Joseph Church in Macon. Although Becker petitioned Rome to transfer the see to faster-growing Atlanta in 1896, his petition was denied. He completed the Cathedral by adding two spires and building the adjacent bishop's house (now the rectory), only to witness the cathedral's destruction by fire on February 6, 1898. He died in 1899, before the cathedral could be rebuilt. In 1900, Becker's vicar general, Benjamin Keiley who took over the leadership of the diocese, continued the effort to reach out to the African Americans in the community He brought Father Ignatius Lissner, SMA, to establish parishes and schools for them in Savannah, Macon and Augusta. Mother Katherine drexel provided financial support for building an orphanage. A group of Poor Claire nuns, at the urging of the bishop, operated a school and orphanage for black girls. When they departed the diocese, a remarkable black woman from Louisiana, Mother Mathilda beasley, who had settled in Savannah, continued their work. By this time, Marist Brothers were teaching boys in Savannah and Augusta.
Marist Father Michael J. Keyes became Georgia's eighth bishop in 1922, following Keiley's resignation for reasons of health. Keyes led his people through the years following World War I and the difficult days of the Depression. Despite financial difficulties, new churches were built in Valdosta and St. Simons Island, as well as in Macon and Savannah.
Savannah-Atlanta. Gerald P. O'Hara, auxiliary of Philadelphia, was transferred to Savannah late in 1935, after Bishop Keyes' retirement. O'Hara expanded the range of the missionary endeavors into the rural areas. New religious orders, the Franciscan Fathers and Oblates of Mary Immaculate, came to south Georgia. In the summer, children from rural parishes gathered at Camp Villa Marie for religious instruction. With the growth of the Catholic population in the northern part of the state, the diocese gained a new name in 1937: "Savannah-Atlanta." World War II brought An influx of Catholic families during World War II caused new parishes to be established in a number of places. At the end of the war, O'Hara was posted to Romania as Regent of the Apostolic Nunciature in Bucharest. Expelled by the Communists, he returned briefly to Savannah. Named an archbishop, he became papal nuncio to Ireland and then apostolic delegate to Great Britain, while remaining bishop of Savannah until 1959.
Savannah-Atlanta was divided into two dioceses, Savannah and Atlanta, on Nov. 8, 1956. O'Hara's auxiliary, Bishop Francis X. Hyland, became the first Bishop of Atlanta, and Bishop Thomas J. McDonough, auxiliary in St. Augustine, was transferred to Savannah in 1957. After O'Hara resigned in 1959, McDonough was appointed 10th Bishop of Savannah in 1960. He brought the Glenmary Fathers and Sisters to Georgia to build up the church in rural areas. In 1963 McDonough established a diocesan newspaper for Savannah and naming it The Southern Cross, after the short-lived publication of the 1870s. He attended the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), and returned to implement its provisions in the diocese. He also integrated the Catholic schools. McDonough founded a minor seminary on the Isle of Hope and arranged with the bishop of Cork, Ireland, for newly-ordained Irish priests to come to the diocese help meet the increased need for clergy occasioned by the expanding rural missions.
On McDonough's promotion to archbishop of Louisville (1967), Gerard L. Frey became Savannah's 11th bishop, presiding over the diocese as it adjusted to the post-Vatican II changes and struggled with issues that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He faced difficult questions, such as the merger of three parishes in Augusta (two white and one black) and the closure of a home for the aged and the minor seminary.
After Frey was transferred to Lafayette, Louisiana, he was succeeded by Raymond W. Lessard in 1973. Lessard took charge at a time of unprecedented growth and change. He was responsible for the establishment of the permanent diaconate in the diocese. His tenure saw the Catholic population of the diocese almost double, from approximately 35,000 to nearly 70,000. He presided over the diocese during a period of expansion in rural areas as well as in the cities of south Georgia. During his episcopate, missions to Vietnamese refuges in Savannah and to Spanish-speaking migrant workers in the rural areas were established.
When Lessard resigned for reasons of health in 1995, J. Kevin Boland, a native of Cork, Ireland, who had served in parishes in Savannah and Columbus and as vicar general, was named 13th Bishop of Savannah. Boland commissioned feasibility studies of the Savannah deanery parishes and schools, with the goal of a more efficient allocation of resources and personnel. Under his leadership, a major restoration of the Cathedral, timed to coincide with the Jubilee Year and the Sesquicentennial of the diocese, was undertaken, as was an increased outreach to the Spanish-speaking.
Bibliography: m. v. gannon, Rebel Bishop: The Life and Era of Augustine Verot (Milwaukee 1964). t. j. peterman, The Cutting Edge: The Life of Thomas A. Becker, First Catholic Bishop of Wilmington and Sixth Bishop of Savannah (Devon, Pa. 1982). g. w. mcdonagh, Black and White in Savannah, Georgia (Knoxville 1993). m. j. bevard, ed., One Faith … One Family: The Diocese of Savannah 1850–2000 (Syracuse NY 2000).
[d. k. clark]