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.
As you saw in the first photo, St, Joseph Church presents from its exterior as a typical rectangular, single gable structure. Though it does have lovely columns and well-formed and decorative cornice returns, it is as simple yet tasteful as can be. The interior follows that suggestion as well. In this view, we are looking forward from the back of the church toward a raised chancel populated only by the minimum of furniture and statuary required, a straight legged communion table, a pulpit (modern) with no molding or other ornamentation applied and a simple but architecturally attractive prayer rail. The wood stove brings a feeling of authenticity to this scene as well.
In this close up, we can see that the walls are painted, fairly wide vertical boards that sit atop a plain molding and wainscot. We also can more closely examine and affirm the simplicity of the entire chancel and pulpit area. This is in keeping of this churches rural heritage.
The sanctuary has undergone many changes over the last hundred years or so. Even at that, much of its interior appearance and furnishings remains, and today it looks much as it did in the early 20th century. Here we can see that the original pews and kneeling benches stand upon the solid heart pine floor boards on which they were placed in 1911.
This old sanctuary remains as inviting and charming as always. The green stained glass windows and unique, checker board, wood tiled ceiling provides an upbeat, cheerful atmosphere that is very compatible with the green wainscot. This photo also introduces us to certainly one of the first confessionals (left rear) ever in this rural part of Georgia.
In a small room added to the back of the church, we found this storage cabinet and chair. This was the changing room for the priests and others that were serving as well as a storage room for firewood and other necessities. Note that the wall boards are narrow gage tongue and groove, completely different from those found it the sanctuary.
This lovely pump organ is certain to have provided appropriate accompaniment to all kinds of services and events at Saint Joseph during its history.
Here we see a vintage, solid oak folding chair found in the confessional...” if those old, oak boards could speak!”
Though a thoroughly modern steel stove, this wood burner is used today, just as its cast iron pot belly stove cousins, to provide warmth to all within the sanctuary. We give the St Joseph staff , congregation and visitors a gold star for authenticity.
Steel, cast iron and zinc grave markers were very popular in the late 19th , early 20th centuries. The one above is a very elaborate and beautiful example. They fell out of fashion when it became clear that, despite being made of metal, they were particularly subject to damage by the elements.
George Mical Fries was born in 1828 and died in 1896. It is likely that he was born in Europe and migrated to Georgia after the war. Since his death predates the cemetery, this is likely a cenotaph to his memory. He may still have ancestors in the area and we found this respectful single rose to be a nice touch.
Here lies George M. Crawford (1892 - 1918) who died at the young age of 28. His interment is not listed on Findagrave for some reason. Since he seems have some military recognition, his death may have been from wounds received in WWI, but that is speculation on our part. His age and the dates of American participation in the War would certain support this speculation.
St. Joseph Catholic is one of those rare, rural Catholic churches that have been serving this part of Georgia for over 100 years. The church has been lovingly maintained in its original condition and we applaud the historical stewardship.
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Great article. I would like to clarify a few points, having lived here in Sylvania and a member of Our Lady of The Assumption parish. First, our pastor is FATHER LOU LUSSIER, and second, Loretta Newton died in 2015. St. Joseph’s has, as the article stated, retained the rustic charm of it’s original construction, and anyone who wishes to know more about the church, including masses at St. Joseph, is welcome to call Our Lady of The Assumption at (912) 564-2313. If there is no answer, please leave your name and number and we will return your call. Thank you. Charles Kimbrough, Our Lady Of the Assumption Church, Sylvania, Georgia.
Thank you Charles. St. Joseph is a welcome link to our past. She is a real treat.
Thanks, HRCGA. It was a pleasure to have you visit St. Joseph. Hope you’ll come again.