Locust Grove Catholic

Taliaferro County
Org 1792
Photography by Bryan Stovall

Click HERE  to take an interior tour of Locust Grove Catholic Church

Click HERE  to take a tour of Locust Grove Catholic Church Cemetery

You are looking at the oldest Catholic church in the state of Georgia, originally known as Locust Grove Catholic, and also known as the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Referred to in one history as the ‘Cradle of Catholicity in Georgia,’  most people are surprised to learn that the oldest Catholic church in Georgia was not organized in Savannah, but here, in a rural farm town in the 1790s.

By this time, the former British colonies had risen up to create a new nation and a group of English Catholic families from Maryland migrated south to Wilkes County (now Taliaferro) Georgia. They were looking for fertile farmland and religious freedom from the British circles where Catholics were not welcome. They named their new community, Mary Land after their home, and in 1792, established the first Roman Catholic Church in Georgia here. A fellow Maryland native, Father John LeMoin, was sent from Baltimore to run the church and administer to the growing community. The first Catholic Church in Savannah was formed a decade later in 1802.

Soon, French Catholics fleeing the revolution in their country and the slave revolt in Haiti joined them. Followed later by Irish settlers, including the ancestors of authors Margaret Mitchell and Flannery O’Connor. The community was renamed Locust Grove and by 1818, the first Roman Catholic School in Georgia, Locust Grove Academy, was established here. It was to be the alma mater of three future governors of Georgia, including Alexander Stephens from nearby Crawfordville.

The first church constructed in Locust Grove was a log cabin in the 1790s. It was replaced by a larger frame structure in 1821 in order to accommodate the growing congregation. By this time, Locust Grove was the center of Catholicism for much of Georgia. The parish had grown to serve several remote “stations” where members met in private homes for Mass and confession.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Catholic community of Locust Grove had relocated a few miles away to the town of Sharon, which had emerged when the railroads came to the area in the 1850s. Back then, many church members were substantial slaveholders and the church minutes show a multitude of births, baptisms, and even weddings for the black members of the congregation. This was an unusual situation in rural Georgia and perhaps one that was unique. 

In 1877, the c. 1821 frame church was moved into the town of Sharon but by 1883, it was determined that the old frame church was no longer adequate and the present structure was erected. In 1884, Locust Grove Academy was also relocated, into a large frame structure next to the new church, and renamed Sacred Heart Seminary. Operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph in nearby Washington, Georgia, Sacred Heart Seminary housed a convent, a boarding school for boys, and a day school for girls. The seminary originally stood on the property to the left of the church and operated until the 1940s.

Absorbed into the town of Sharon, the community that was Locust Grove slowly disappeared, and now, only the old cemetery remains to mark the place where a community used to be.

During the height of its prosperity, trains rolled in and out of Sharon laden with cotton from surrounding plantations. It was a bustling community well into the early 20th century, but the onset of the boll weevil during the 1910s and 1920s decimated the cotton economy in Georgia and Sharon. People sold their farms and relocated elsewhere.

Over the course of the 20th century, the population of Sharon slowly dwindled, as did the number of Catholics there. In 2001, the Archdiocese of Atlanta downgraded Purification Church to station status under St. Joseph’s parish in Washington, holding an occasional Saturday vigil Mass. Eventually, sacraments were no longer celebrated there and the church was closed.

In 2014, a group of concerned Catholics from Atlanta and Washington, GA, formed Friends of  Purification to fundraise for the renovation of the church, which had fallen into disrepair. They were able to shore up the original bell tower and foundation, thus making the church safe and usable again. Today, the church is in semi-regular use for tours, special public Masses, and retreats and operates as a the Purfication Catholic Heritage Center. You can follow them on Facebook HERE or on their website HERE.

The Locust Grove Cemetery

The old Locust Grove cemetery is a must-see and is located at the original location of the church. There is also a newer cemetery in the town of Sharon that was established after the relocation. We felt that it was important to share some of the fascinating stories from the graveyard, so in the gallery below, you will find many photos and stories of the interments there.

Dating to 1790, this is the oldest Catholic cemetery in Georgia and is listed on the National  Register of Historic Places. The stones from the second building’s foundation still remain inside the cemetery walls. The first Catholic school in Georgia, Locust Grove Academy, was chartered and established here.

All grave headstones are oriented toward the East and many of the headstones were made in Augusta, GA, and Raleigh, NC. Some family plots are grouped within stacked stone or wrought iron enclosures. Most of the burials are congregation members of  Irish descent who died in an outbreak of Yellow Fever which swept through the settlement at one point.

In an effort to identify unmarked graves, the Purification Heritage Center employed the use of soil technology and cadaver dogs to find humansremains in unmarked plots. Today, throughout the graveyard, you will see wooden stakes with red flags representing unmarked graves of congregation members. They believe that most of these unmarked graves are enslaved African Americans who, while enslaved, participated in the full sacramental life of the church. 

In recent years, Purification Heritage Center has hired professionals to repair the broken headstones and the stone wall in the cemetery. An Eagle Scout project built and installed several benches for visitors and volunteers have cleaned nearly 50% of the headstones. An effort is underway to properly mark the graves and honor the souls of the African American members of the congregation. A  beautiful and moving All Souls Mass is held in the cemetery each year on the Saturday closest to All Souls Day on the Catholic calendar. 

Across the road from the cemetery is the location of the original Catholic settlement, where  congregation members lived and worked. That historic land is being redeveloped and repurposed into a beautiful retreat center and working farm, set to open in early 2024.

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