I was born and raised in Savannah, Georgia, known as the “Hostess City of the South.” Georgia, founded at Savannah in 1733 by the English philanthropist James Edward Oglethorpe, was the thirteenth English colony in that part of the New World which was to become the United States. It was one of the first planned cities in North America, laid out on a grid of perpendicular avenues studded with parks and squares.
Savannah’s long history (by American standards, at least) has been exquisitely preserved in its architecture. It was one of the first American cities to take historic preservation seriously, beginning such efforts in the 1950s. The extensive restoration carried out by the world-renowned Savannah College of Art and Design, whose campus is downtown, has also helped to resurrect the city. The result is the largest historic landmark district in the country, showcasing countless restored homes, churches, and civic and commercial properties, alongside a number of museums, forts, art galleries, theaters, and significant historical sites.
The oldest structures, located down near the beautifully restored cobblestone-and-gaslight riverfront, date back to the early 1700s. A disastrous fire in 1820 destroyed much of the city, but energetic Savannahians rebuilt, and many of the restored structures date to the early 1800s, before the Civil War. If you want to get a glimpse of life in the urban Old South, Savannah is the place to come. The abundant wrought iron, historical monuments, gracious fountains, and secluded gardens make it a “walking city” for residents and tourists alike.
Savannah is blessed with natural beauty as well. The subtropical climate assures rampant green everywhere, and in the spring the city explodes in a kaleidoscope of azaleas, dogwood, wisteria, jasmine, and other popular flowers. Summers are kept colorful with roses, day lilies, magnolias, crepe myrtle, oleander, lantana, and numerous other blossoms.
Overhead, the canopy of ancient oaks—some of them more than two centuries old—is draped with Spanish moss and brightened with resurrection ferns. Palmettos and other members of the palm family appear everywhere, as do pine, cedar, bay, and a variety of fruit trees.
Stretching out between the city and the nearby sea are the northernmost of the lush Georgia sea islands, once home to large cotton plantations but later home to folks like me. I grew up on Talahi Island, which lies between Wilmington Island and Tybee Island. The Atlantic Ocean, which forms a white sandy beach with dunes on the east side of Tybee, flows around the other islands to form lovely salt marshes that stretch for miles, filling and emptying twice daily with the tides. The tall marsh grasses make them look like broad savannas—thus the name of the city.
I used to walk and pray on the beach at Tybee every morning. As you can imagine, I compiled quite a seashell and driftwood collection. I recall many mornings being entertained by the dolphins, sea gulls, pelicans, sand pipers, and little birds whose name I don’t know. Since the sun rises over the ocean on the East Coast, if I got out early enough, I got to enjoy fabulous sunrises as well.
No wonder Savannah has drawn millions of tourists from all over the world.
On some days more than a thousand of those tourists in Savannah flock to gawk at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, where I have spent many happy hours in worship over the years. Built in the 1870s, rebuilt after a fire in the 1890s, this massive Neo-Gothic structure, mother church of the Diocese of Savannah, is the most stunning jewel in the city’s remarkable architectural crown. Its twin towers soar over the city skyline.
The immense, solemn doors of the Cathedral open onto lovely Lafayette Square, across the street from the childhood home of the celebrated Catholic author Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor was a Savannah native—in fact, she went to college with my mother—and as a child she belonged to the Cathedral parish.
The Catholic community has long had a strong and highly visible presence in Savannah. The first Catholics to come to this area were Franciscan missionaries from Spain, who arrived in the late 1500s to evangelize the native Guale people. Though they won many converts, five of them were murdered by a local tribal leader who resented their insistence that polygamy was against God’s intention for marriage. The cause for canonization of these Georgia martyrs, as they are called, is now moving ahead, and we’re hopeful that one day before long we will see them raised to the altars.
As the English pushed their way into Georgia (a sad and brutal story), the early Catholic communities were massacred, enslaved, or driven into what was then Spanish-held Florida. When Oglethorpe founded Savannah many years later, his colonial charter outlawed three things he thought would spell doom for the new colony: rum, slaves, and “papists.” But such laws were ultimately impossible to enforce.
The first wave of Catholics to come to Savannah were French-speaking, most of them fleeing the political troubles in Haiti around the turn of the nineteenth century. Many were plantation owners who had left France to seek their fortunes in the Caribbean; some were slaves who accompanied them; and still others were free persons of color. As a major eastern seaport, Savannah has always been a rather cosmopolitan city (especially compared to other cities in the Deep South); later waves of Catholic immigrants included the Irish, Germans, Italians, Minorcans, Latin Americans, Vietnamese, and others.
In the days of the Spanish missionaries, this area was part of the Archdiocese of Havana (Cuba). When the Baltimore (Maryland) diocese was established in 1789, Savannah lay within the southern frontier of its far-flung territory. In 1820, Savannah became part of the new Diocese of Charleston (South Carolina), till finally, in 1850, the Diocese of Savannah was founded.
The tremendous Irish influence is still seen in the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, probably the largest in the world outside Boston. Typically, more than 300,000 people show up to celebrate all day, with green grits in the restaurants for breakfast, and green beer in the pubs for the rest of the day.
Savannah has numerous Catholic parishes and schools, so if you visit the city, you shouldn’t have trouble getting to Mass. The Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (the Latin Mass) is celebrated on Sunday afternoons in the Cathedral—a most fitting setting for that beautiful liturgy.
If you’re interested in learning more about Savannah Catholic history, take a look at my doctoral dissertation, Aristocracy of the Heart: Catholic Lay Leadership in Savannah, 1820–1870. You can find it in the collections of the Savannah diocesan archives, the Georgia Historical Society, and the main branch of the Live Oak Public Library System.
We live far away from Savannah now, but my extraordinarily lovely hometown will always hold a special place in my heart.