Saint Joseph Catholic

Screven County
Org 1875
Photography by John Kirkland

St. Joseph Catholic is only the third Catholic church that is on the HRCGA website. The reason for this is that Catholic church communities developed almost exclusively in urban areas in Georgia, as opposed to rural. The same is true of Jewish Synagogues, Lutherans and and other denominations. Rural Georgia had rapid development after the Revolutionary War and Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians arose as the dominant denominations in the Georgia backcountry.

Starting in the 1870’s Catholic mass in rural Screven County was held in the homes of the Slavic and German Catholic families who moved into this part of Georgia after the Civil War. This continued until 1908 when visiting priest Reverend (later Monsignor) Joseph D. Mitchell learned of other Catholics living nearby. He became convinced the Bay Branch area needed a church. In 1911, thanks to the physical and financial support of area Catholics, Saint Joseph Church – built on land donated by Pete Getsinger – was dedicated. This was the first, and for many years, the only Catholic church between Savannah and Augusta.

Mass is now held only on special occasions during the year. Though it no longer functions as a parish, St Joseph Bay Branch played it’s part in sustaining the faith of Catholics in the area. From these early beginnings there are now Catholic churches in Sylvania, Statesboro, Millen, Waynesboro, Louisville, Swainsboro, and Millen. The church has retained it’s beautiful rural charm and has changed only slightly since being built. The originality is striking. The only changes are the addition of electricity, newer wooden ceiling, and a carpet runner down the center aisle.

The heat is still a wood stove near the front. Hot days are countered by tall ceilings, one center ceiling fan, and windows that open. There is no running water and the “facilities” are the woods behind the cemetery. A small room in the rear of the church houses an original wooden desk and chair. It is used as a changing room for the priest and, of course, firewood storage. An organ sits in the corner and simple wooden pews and kneeling benches still serve. All are original. That is the simplicity and beauty of St Joseph.The cemetery holds the grave of many Europeans who came to the area for affordable farm land. The names on the headstone reveal Old World lineage. In 1958, with the proliferation of Catholic churches in the area, Saint Joseph became the mission of Sylvania’s Our Lady of the Assumption.

A hundred years after Saint Joseph was built, Reverend Lou Lussier, O.S. Cam., pastor at Our Lady of the Assumption, Sylvania, now says Mass in the historic Bay Branch chapel on designated occasions. Before he does this, Loretta Newton of Sylvania cleans the church and washes church linens. Loretta says she and her husband, Frank, already have a headstone erected in Saint Joseph’s cemetery, reserving a spot in its history. These faithful stewards have preserved this Catholic treasure that has served this community for over 100 years now. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for this labor of love and for the preservation of the historical record. Most of the information above came from this source. The interior of the church is a time warp and a visual treat for the senses. Enjoy. Author’s note: We are now informed that Loretta Newton has left this life and is is interred in the church yard. We remain grateful to her for her stewardship.

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