In spite of James Ogelthorpe's desire to exclude papist from Georgia by the close of the 18th century, there were enough French Catholic émigré in Savannah to found a parish. With the help of the mayor and alderman who allocated half a trust lot, the church of St. Jean Baptiste was founded. The original church was located on Liberty Square. The Catholic population grew quickly, and in 1839, the new church was opened on Drayton St. It could seat 1,000 people.
In 1850, Savannah became the seat of a newly created Diocese, which included all of Georgia and most of Florida. A Catholic population of over 5,000. St. John the Baptist now became a cathedral. A new cathedral was built in 1876 on land acquired from the Sisters of Mercy on Abercorn Street at Lafayette Square.
It was dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and was built in the French-Gothic style. About 10 years later, it was discovered that the Vatican had never approved the change of name, and it resumed the original name St. John the Baptist, with Our Lady of Perpetual Help as a secondary patron. This beautiful cathedral was doomed to only about 20 years of use. A devastating fire in February 1898 all but destroyed it. Only the outside walls and the two spires were left standing. The cathedral was rededicated in May 1912.
Lest you think that they have had all the disasters that any church possibly could, in 2003, an arsonist set fire to the pulpit and totally destroyed it. It has been replaced with an exact copy, and the church is as beautiful as ever.
We were particularly fascinated with the church for a number of reasons. One is that their beautiful mystery of the rosary stained glass windows were created by the Innsbruck Glassmakers,
these are the same artist who created our fabulous stained-glass windows at St. John Church in Middletown, CT. There are only 11 known sets of these windows, and to come across another set was amazing to us. The windows in Savannah were installed in 1904, ours in Connecticut in 1903. Peg also was present when the arsonist attacked the pulpit, she was held captive for some time by the armed man. She bravely escaped to get help and probably saved the rest of the church from the fire.
Since it was early in January, we were also blessed to see their crèche still up. It was fantastic; done under a dark blue sky, it is a whole scene, not just a stable. Another unique--at least to us--decoration in the church was a tree made of poinsettia plants.
That alone was worth the visit.
The church is open daily, except during services, and there is a noon-time Mass.