While I was a seminarian in 2004, my pastor at Saint Mary on the Hill in Augusta, Father Jerry Ragan, gave me a unique task during my summer assignment. He asked me to do the necessary research and paperwork to place a historical marker at the parish to commemorate the Sisters of Saint Joseph who for many years staffed the Catholic school. A few years prior, the parish had purchased the old convent and renovated it into an Adoration Chapel and other space for both parish and school use. My first step was to contact Sister Laura Ann Grady, CSJ, one of the few Sisters of Saint Joseph still residing in Augusta. During our first meeting she introduced me to the fascinating story of the first Catholics who settled in the state of Georgia in 1790 in an area called Locust Grove.
As I worked on the application for the Georgia Historical Society, I decided to visit this site where English Catholics from Maryland found fertile land and founded the first Catholic presence in the state of Georgia. It was a hot summer day. I arrived to the town of Sharon and found the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I remembered attending Mass at this somewhat dilapidated country church as a child when my family lived in Washington, Georgia. Though we regularly attended Mass at Saint Joseph in Washington, Father Ryan celebrated a Saturday vigil Mass in Sharon. I drove in every direction of the 4-way stop of Sharon and did not find the old cemetery, so I stopped at a convenience store on the single intersection in town. The door was wide open and an elderly man sat motionless on a reclining chair. The temperature decreased a few degrees by stepping inside, yet it remained hot enough that all the candy bars for sale were kept in a small refrigerator. The man explained where to find this old Catholic cemetery. “When you get to the dirt road, keep going. It’ll be on your right.”
Last week I had the opportunity to return to Locust Grove for the fourth time. This time the cemetery was well maintained and the grave stones were clean. A beautiful stone wall enclosed the area. In the same way that Bishop England of Charleston visited the faithful in this remote Georgia settlement, Bishop emeritus J. Kevin Boland and Bishop elect Parkes both walked among the graves of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith. The Purification Heritage Center led by Mrs. Betsy Orr has performed a considerable amount of work to restore the area and ensure that its story is told. Catholics arrived to Locust Grove a few years before any arrived to the city of Savannah or any other place in the state. This is the birthplace of the Diocese of Savannah. The Church of the Purification is one of the original three parishes of the state, including Saint John the Baptist in Savannah and Saint Patrick (Most Holy Trinity) in Augusta.
In 2005, Bishop Boland dedicated a historical marker outside the old convent at Saint Mary on the Hill School. These first Catholic settlers, along with the priests and Sisters of Saint Joseph that served them, endured considerable hardships, yet the faith persevered. As Georgia Catholics, this heritage belongs to each one of us, and in the practice of our faith, we join our ancestors in faith by professing the same one faith in Jesus Christ.
Pictures are mine, all rights reserved. 2020.