History of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

Inside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - While events across the country are canceled for St. Patrick’s Day, we have a few stories we hope will help keep the spirit alive.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is usually the center of St. Patrick’s Day here in Savannah. Its history is rich in Irish culture.

“It’s a testimony to the people of faith, who had to overcome significant hardship to establish the faith here in Savannah against all odds," said tour guide Peter Paolucci.

Peter Paolucci gives tours at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, helping visitors understand and appreciate its history.

“No Catholics were allowed to settle here until after the Revolutionary War, when the U.S. Constitution gave religious freedom to all.”

By the late 1700′s, French Catholics came to Savannah after fleeing an uprising in Haiti.

“They founded the first Catholic church, the Congrégation de Saint Jean-Baptiste, and built a small wood frame church over on Montgomery Street, the site of our current courthouse.”

The congregation grew, with many Irish Catholics coming to Savannah.

This meant they needed a bigger church, so a new one was built on Drayton Street. By 1850, the Diocese of Savannah was erected, with the appointment of Bishop Francis Gartland who then led the new Church of St. John the Baptist.

But even after building a new, bigger church, the diocese wanted something even bigger.

In 1870, Bishop Ignatius Persico acquired the land where the current Cathedral now stands. The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was erected between 1873-1876.

“It didn’t look exactly like this because it didn’t have the spires, initially. They couldn’t afford the spires.”

A fire then destroyed the new Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in February 6, 1898.

"We're talking back to the four walls. The roof caved in, and the only thing to survive was the old high altar and a couple features in Our Lady's Chapel."

Just a few of the Cathedral's features that leave visitors awestruck.

“You don’t think about Savannah as a place of Catholicism or kind of a Catholic area. Yet the history kind of lended itself to that from the Irish and the other immigrants and the history that were here,” said Tim Doiron from Chicago.

The Cathedral was rebuilt and dedicated in 1900. Twelve years later, the Cathedral’s interior was finished.

Savannah artist Christopher Murphy designed the 34 murals seen inside.

“These murals were painted oil on canvas in New York City, and brought here and installed much like you put up wallpaper,” said Paolucci.

Paolucci loves to show visitors the beautiful stained glass windows, though they’re hard to miss.

"In the center panel, John is baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. The Holy Spirit is descending upon him in the form of a dove."

The windows, installed around 1904, are a French Gothic style, emphasizing verticality and light.

"There are many other windows up and down the aisles that feature saints or Biblical scenes worthy of people viewing and admiring."

Other features of admiration include the freestanding Stations of the Cross, and some of the Cathedral's recent renovations.

The Holy Oils Ambry...

“These were three tabernacles on the St. Joseph altar, Blessed Mother altar and St. Anthony altar, no longer in use, reconstituted into the Ambry.”

The main altar is inscribed with a Latin phrase.

“Beati Qui Ad Cenam Agni Vocati Sunt - Blessed are they who are called to the banquet of the Lamb.”

And the Baptismal font, which includes the Celtic symbol for eternity.

"The font is lined with black granite from India. It's constructed of Carrara marble with Portuguese pink marble accents."

The colors, the details, and the grandeur of each piece in the Cathedral tells a story about Savannah and those who fought to create a unique and special place of faith.

“And I think they achieved that.”

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