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 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.
Inside the sanctuary, you will notice the bright light and airy feeling of a space unencumbered by columns, which was quite a feat for its day.
This is due to the support from the trusses for the roof; 33 feet at their bottom chord, perhaps the largest such wooden trusses in the state.
From the pulpit, we look toward the front doors to see the balcony.which is supported by thin columns with decorative fretwork. Framed iconic scenes hang on all the walls.
The chancel, altar, and pulpit, decorated for service.
The large 16 by 16 clear glass, double-hung windows, fill the sanctuary with light.
The craftsmanship of these 125 year old pews is impressive and attests to the affluence and wealth of this community at the time.
This is a view of the confessional that is tucked beneath the balcony. From this angle, you also get a better view of the columns that support the balcony. This confessional is the only one we have seen in the Georgia backcountry.
This marker reads: Erected by the Loving Congregation of Sharon, To the Memory of Rev. Barnard J. Doyle, born in County Cavan, Ireland February 25, 1848 was drowned in the discharge of his priestly duties, December 14, 1879. May he rest in peace. Amen.
Father Doyle had traveled from Athens to Lexington to administer last rites to a dying man. He and his companion, Maurice H. Moynihan, headed back to Athens in a storm, darkness set in with heavy rain and flooding and they could not see and got lost. Their bodies were found the next day.
Maurice H. Moynihan was born in Knockahopple, County Kerry, Ireland on October 20, 1844 and died December 14, 1879.
He is the only person in this cemetery with last name Moynihan. There were other people living in Augusta with last name Moyniham who were possibly his relatives.
He and Rev. Barnard L. Doyle (mentioned previously) drowned together.
John P. Maher was born August 15, 1861 and died November 28, 1880.
He is shown in the 1880 Taliaferro County census with his mother, Mary Maher, age 52. He had a brother, Michael, age 26, and a sister Katie, age 21 in the census. His age was shown as 19. His mother, Mary, and his brother, Michael, are also buried at the Purification Cemetery. The family is listed in the 1870 Taliaferro County census as John and Mary Meagher and five children including John age nine.
John Cratin was born in 1752 in Baltimore County, Maryland and died September 8, 1826.
He was a Lt. in the Revolutionary War, 2nd Maryland Regiment. He married Mary Ann Lanham (1754-1850).
He was the head of one of the first Catholic families in Georgia and helped establish the first Catholic Church in Georgia. His wife and at least two of his children are also buried at Locust Grove.
Robert Emmet Griffin was born August 23, 1839 and died September 26, 1861.
He was the son of Murtha Mortimer Griffin (1792-1861) and Elizabeth Teresa Luckett Griffin (1802-1859). Both of Robert’s parents are also buried at Locust Grove cemetery. Murtha Griffin, age 69, is shown in the 1860 Taliaferro County census with four of his children including 19 year old R. E. Griffin.
William O. S. Griffin was born in 1830 and died January 9, 1859. His father, Mortimer Griffin was born in County Carlow Ireland in 1792. William’s Father Murtha Mortimer Griffin (1792-1861) and Mother, Elizabeth Teresia Luckett Griffin (1802-1859) are both buried at Locust Grove. Elizabeth’s parents Tom Hussey Luckett (1771-1827) and Elizabeth Semmes Luckett (1772-1838) are buried at Locust Grove.
Joanna Harty died in February, 1827. She was 27 years old when she died.
She was the first wife of James Harty who was born in Ireland and died in Taliaferro County on July 4, 1872. The second wife of James Harty was Sarah Kelly Harty (1814-1887).
Patrick Keating was born in 1820 and was a native of County Tipperary, Ireland. He died January 19, 1886 in Taliaferro County, Georgia.
His wife, Mary Keating was born in County Tipperary, Ireland and died in Taliaferro County May 20, 1891.
Their daughter, Mollie Keating Ward, (1852-1928) is also buried at the Purification Cemetery. Mollie died in Fulton County. Her death certificate lists her Mother’s maiden name as Miss Maher.
There are four markers at Purification Cemetery with last name Maher.
Sarah V. Okeeffe was born June 29, 1842 in Columbia County, Georgia and died July 13, 1861.
Besides Sarah, the following O’Keeffes are shown buried at this church cemetery: Ann (1830-1895), Daniel (1810-1885), Ellen M. (1839-1869), John (1859-1926), John D. (1901-1963), William L. (1906-1978) and others.
A death certificate shows John was the son of Daniel and Ellen, who were both born in Ireland. John and Margaret are in the 1910 census with children John D., William L., Ethel A. and Alice.
Sarah Kelly Harty was born in 1814 in Ireland and died July 18, 1887.
The 1850 Taliaferro County census shows Sarah, age 35 and her husband, James, age 61 with 6 children in the household.
In 1870 Sarah and James are living in a household where their son, Edmund, is the head of household. James Harty died July 4, 1872.
John Burke was born October 31, 1826 and died November 20, 1913.
Alice Burke was born May 15, 1838 and died June 30, 1910.
The 1910 Taliaferro County census shows John Burke immigrated in 1842 and Alice immigrated in 1859. In 1910 they had been married 47 years and had had 7 children with 5 still living in 1910. Their daughter Margaret married John O’Keeffe, previously mentioned.
The building located besides the church served as the rectory at one point- the home where the priest would live who served the Church of the Purification. The rectory was sold to a private citizen in 1960.
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Taliaferro Co has so many great churches on HRCGA.
My grandmother told me that she went to school at this Catholic church in Sharon, GA, as a young girl. Her maternal grandfather sent she there after her mother died in December of 1883.
This is fascinating information. In the near future I plan to visit the church and cemetery. My career has been in agriculture. And, in my extensive
Southeast travels, I’ve visited many historical churches. I’d like to add this one to my memorable collection. Thank you for providing this most
interesting piece of history.
Thanks Warren. Good to hear from you.
I just visited the church and would like to be involved.