You are looking at the oldest Catholic church in the state of Georgia, 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 that the oldest Catholic church in Georgia was not organized in Savannah, but here in the little farm town of Sharon. We have to remember that until well after the Revolutionary War, Catholics were not welcome in British circles. The first Catholic sanctuary in Savannah was organized in 1802. However, in 1790, several Catholic families of English decent made their way to this Georgia frontier location from Maryland, and the first Roman Catholic Church in Georgia was established in 1792.
A fellow Maryland native, Father John LeMoin, was sent from Baltimore to run the church and administer to the growing community. According to the Locust Grove Academy’s historical marker, several French families left their homeland due to the revolution and made their way to a new life in this agricultural Eden. Later they were joined by several Irish families and they all became part of the Locust Grove church. Early church records that include names such as O’Sullivan, Villabonteau, Semmes, and O’Donohoe show that both the French and Irish descendants had a presence in Locust Grove. In 1818, the first Roman Catholic school in Georgia, Locust Grove Academy, was established.
In 1877, the decision was made to move the church a short distance to the thriving town of Sharon, and they relocated the wood frame church originally built in 1821. The church prospered, even in a difficult post Civil War and Reconstruction environment, and in 1883 the present church was built…complete with a proper bell to summon the parishioners for Mass. A year later, in 1884, Locust Grove Academy was also moved to Sharon, into a large frame structure next to the new church and renamed Sacred Heart School for Boys. Other than the old cemetery, the community that was Locust Grove slowly disappeared, which is not unusual in the backcountry. Villages come and go but the churches survive as reminder of the glory that was. We see it all the time.
The old Locust Grove cemetery is a must see and is located at the original location of the church. Several photos of it are part of this series, along with a complete listing of interments. The sanctuary is now getting updated through the efforts of some Atlanta based supporters. After restoration efforts are complete the church will function as a Catholic Cultural center as well as a church. Support for their restoration efforts is encouraged, more information can be accessed below.
My friend and I were on an east Georgia ramble in 2012 when we saw (see the first picture) a lonely, stark but hauntingly beautiful church to our left... not more than 50-75 feet off the road. The broom sedge and volunteer trees in the yard made it hard to get over to the steps for a look. A next door neighbor walked over and asked if we would like to see the inside. Of course we accepted and he pulled some old keys from his pocket, turned the lock and opened the door for us to enter. You can imagine our shock when the incredible sight above came into view. This dilapidated, seemingly deserted church was dressed out as if a worship service or wedding was to take place that afternoon. The above photograph captures our first look within the sanctuary of Locust Grove Catholic Church. We later learned that the trusses for this roof are 33 feet at their bottom chord, maybe the largest such wooden trusses in the state. That is why the airy sanctuary is column free, quite a feat for its day.
Working through our amazement over the beautiful scene before us, we walked down the carpeted aisle toward the pulpit, past 125 year old pews and then turned back to look toward the doors we had entered through. Light cascaded through the large 16 by 16 clear glass double hung windows revealing a balcony supported by thin decorated columns capped by arched fretwork. Framed iconic scenes were on all the walls. We knew we had stumbled into a gem. Since this balcony was built in 1883, it was not a slave gallery. However, many pre-Civil War parishioners were substantial slave holders and the church minutes show a multitude of births, baptisms and even weddings for the black members of the congregation. This was a highly unusual situation in rural Georgia and perhaps one that was unique.
This is a view of the Confessional that is tucked beneath the balcony. It is a cozy arrangement, and we felt like a priest might step out and invite us in. From this angle, you also get a better view of the column's that support the balcony. This Confessional is the only one we have seen in the Georgia back country.
Turning 180 degrees from the last photograph, the warm sunlight reveals the fine fit and finish/attention to detail practiced by the builders. The heart pine floors, vertical wood wainscot, soaring window frames and balcony glow and present as the best of the craftsmen's art.
A close-up of the chancel, altar and pulpit that is decorated and prepared for a service. We later learned that the sanctuary was only used on special occasions. The fact that the church is as well maintained as it is pays tribute to the caretakers.
What a treasure this cemetery is. Located at the site of the original Locust Grove Catholic Church, these are the graves of the oldest Roman Catholics in Georgia. Few people would know that this is the site of the first catholic church in Georgia, and would be further surprised to find that it is located in a small east Georgia town (Sharon) that not many people have ever heard of. There are 68 interments in the cemetery with a heavy representation of Irish families. Because of its great age, grave markers and memorials here run the gamut. The one at right center above is particularly grand. It is an exceptionally large, vaulted pedestal tomb capped by an equally impressive, budded trefoil cross. The person memorialized by this stone was one of great significance. A ramble through this historic site on a lovely afternoon would be informational and pleasurable.
The oldest gravestone is 1826 and there are quite a few prior to 1840. A lot of the original Marylanders and Irish families are buried here. There are very interesting gravestones with Latin inscriptions. Above, we see a family plot surrounded by a ruined but still charming iron fence from the mid-19th century. Inside the enclosure we see various types of markers each with its own decorative motif and inscriptions telling their unique stories. This is a special place in Georgia History.
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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.