St. John the Baptist Catholic Church has always been one of my favorite church names. I get a kick out of saying, “St. John, the Baptist Catholic Church,” wondering what a “Baptist Catholic” would look like. This problem was solved, however, for the folks in Savannah over one hundred and fifty years ago when their church was destroyed by a hurricane and reborn a cathedral. Now “The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist” in Savannah, Georgia, is as beautiful and dignified as the new name she bears.
The first settlers of Savannah were so entirely Protestant that Catholicism was actually outlawed at first. In the late 1700’s, however, due to slave uprisings and the struggle for freedom in Haiti, Savannah was flooded with French Catholic immigrants who needed a place to worship. Le Congregation de Saint Jean-Baptiste was born. By the middle of the following century, the church was the Cathedral of the Diocese of Savannah, the Right Reverend Francis X Gartland presiding as bishop.
In 1870 another bishop had an even bigger vision. Bishop Ignatius Persico, procuring land from the Sisters of Mercy, began plans for the construction of a new Cathedral. The architectural prowess of Baltimore’s Ephraim Francis Baldwin was secured, and the cornerstone laid by the fall of 1873. The French Gothic structure that emerged was—and still is—astounding, certainly one of Savannah’s most highly-prized treasures as well as one of the South’s finest contributions to American ecclesial architecture.
A startling stained-glass rose hovers high above the central archway, wedged between twin towers crowned with glorious spires added in 1896. The original brick was stuccoed and whitewashed the same year, giving this magnificent structure the same palatial appearance it possesses today. Inside, altars of white Italian marble stand beneath vast murals depicting Christ and the events of the Gospels.
Savannah’s Catholic worshipers enjoyed the masterpiece for two years—and then, like the hurricane of 1850, the fire of 1898 ravaged the resplendent inner beauty of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, leaving nothing but a massive shell of wall and the two triumphant spires. Undaunted, the church hurriedly but painstakingly rebuilt their most honored place of worship, and the first mass was said in the renewed cathedral Christmas Eve of the following year, one week before the end of the nineteenth century.
Work on the cathedral’s interior continued for years. Savannah artist Christopher Murphy led the effort to obtain some of the nation’s most gifted creators in designing and painting the massive murals seen by visitors today over one hundred years later. Stained-glass windows, crafted by the Innsbruck Glassmakers of the Austrian Tyrol, found their place in the new-and-improved cathedral in 1904 and doubled the awe for worshipers and visitors alike.
One of those worshipers, known to many Southerners, was born literally just around the corner—on the same Lafayette Square—in 1925. The overpoweringly beautiful Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, as well as the mystery and majesty and devotion it housed, had a vitally profound influence on the little girl who grew up to be one of the South’s all-time greatest authors: Mary Flannery O’Conner. The South would not be the South without her.
Who knows who or what else will result from the soaring inspiration provided by the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist? One thing is for sure: We can be glad Georgia’s colonial law forbidding Catholics was short-lived in Savannah.