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Bulloch History by Roger Allen
Savannah site of first Catholic masses in Georgia
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    In the land of Great Britain at the time the American Colonies began their transformation into a new Republic, the man in charge of the Roman Catholic faithful was none other than the Vicar Apostolic of London, Dr. Richard Challoner. His was a huge territory indeed.
    The first Roman Catholic colony in the New World had been planned and then established by the 1st and 3rd Lords Baltimore, George and Cecilius Calvert. Their settlement was named after the French Catholic wife of King Charles 1st of England, Queen Henrietta Marie: Maryland.
    The area for which he was responsible included all of the colonies with the exception of the Indian Missions in Maine and New York, the area of what we know now as Ohio, and settlements in Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
    In 1820, Pope Pius 7th accepted the recommendation of the 5th Provincial Council of Baltimore and appointed Bishop Ignatius Reynolds to head the first American Diocese in the South in Charleston. This would have upset the leader of the Board of Trustees for the Colony of Georgia, the Earl of Egmont.
    He had written in 1732 that “the papists … would only be spies upon our colony to inform the French of Spanish” in urging that Catholics be banned from the new colony of Georgia. As early as 1750, it is recorded that some 400 Acadian Catholics arrived in the Savannah area seeking temporary sanctuary.
    Between 1793-4, after the Slave Revolt in Santo Domingo, the surviving French Catholics fled to Georgia, led by priests Father Jean Le Moyne and Father Souze (or Sonze). They established what would become the first Roman Catholic Church in Georgia: “the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary”.
    Located in what was first called Mount Panoma, then renamed Locust Grove, it sat outside of the town of Sharon, which itself was located some 40 miles west of Augusta. The first church was a simple log cabin, which in time was replaced by a wooden framed structure. At this time, Father O’Donoghue and then Father Sullivan came to minister to the church members.
    The first recorded Masses were held in Savannah at the house of Pierre Michel Joseph Mirault whenever a Roman Catholic priest arrived onboard a ship bound for a new assignment. The first Parish to be created in Savannah was started by the French refugees, which they named the “Congregation de Saint Jean de Baptiste”.
The priest Abbe Antoine Carles (from Austria) was their first spiritual leader. He was replaced by Father Olivier Le Mercer, who soon earned the nickname “the Missionary of Georgia” for his efforts to spread the faith throughout the countryside.
    In 1801 the Georgia Legislature formally recognized the “Roman Catholic Church of Georgia”. Indeed, as early as 1799 the city fathers of Savannah had approached the Catholics to offer them one-half of a trust lot on Liberty Square for them to build their church, now called the Church of Saint John the Baptist.
    In 1811, the Catholics made a request for larger quarters. Eventually, after some negotiations, in 1835, the new church was built which seated as many as 1000 members on the land at Perry and McDonough Streets. When the 7th Provincial Council met in Baltimore in 1850, they recommended the formation of another Southern See, this time the Diocese of Savannah.
    Pope Pius 9th accepted their recommendation, and appointed as the first spiritual leader of Georgia’s Roman Catholics the Very Reverend John England, but after he was confined for “a mental malady” the man chosen to lead Georgia’s Catholics was the Right Reverend Francis Xavier Gartland. With the establishment of the Diocese of Savannah, the church was renamed the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.
    Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look at Bulloch County's historical past. E-mail Roger at roger
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