First Parish Established
Immigrants fleeing turmoil in Haiti and France established Savannah’s first parish, the Congregation de Saint Jean-Baptiste, near the end of the 18th century.
Land Granted; First Cornerstone Laid
To accommodate a growing Catholic population, half a trust lot on Liberty Square was reserved as a building site for the small frame church of Saint John the Baptist.
New Site for the Growing Parish
On August 2, 1811, the Mayor and Aldermen of Savannah granted a petition for a larger parcel of land at Montgomery and Hull Streets; but the congregation instead choose a site on Drayton and Perry Streets.
Bishop of New Diocese Places Cornerstone
The first Bishop of the Diocese of Charleston (1820), which encompassed all of Georgia, was Bishop John England, and he placed the cornerstone of the new brick church. On April 1, 1839, Bishop England dedicated the Church of Saint John the Baptist, which seated 1,000 people.
Diocese of Savannah Erected
Pope Pius IX erected the Diocese of Savannah on July 19, 1850, with the Right Reverend Francis X Gartland as the first bishop. Saint John the Baptist Church (the only Catholic church in Savannah) was repaired following hurricane damage, enlarged and named the Cathedral.
New Cathedral is Planned
The Right Reverend Ignatius Persico, fourth bishop of Savannah, began planning the construction of a new Cathedral. He procured land on Abercorn Street from the Sisters of Mercy, but resigned the see in 1872 due to poor health.
Cornerstone is Laid
The Right Reverend William H. Gross, C.Ss.R., laid the cornerstone of the new Cathedral on November 19, 1873. The new structure was dedicated to “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” a name the Cathedral retained for ten years.
Cathedral is Dedicated
On April 30, 1876, the Most Reverend James Roosevelt Bayley, Archbishop of Baltimore, dedicated the new French Gothic style Cathedral, which was suitably soaring and ornate, with four side altars of white Italian marble.
Spires and Stucco are Added
The Right Reverend Thomas A. Becker completed the Cathedral with the building of the spires in 1896. The brick structure was also stuccoed and whitewashed.
Fire Ravages Cathedral
A devastating fire on February 6, 1898, destroyed all of the Cathedral but the outside walls and the two spires. The rebuilding began immediately, and the seventh bishop of Savannah, Benjamin Keiley, celebrated the first mass in the rebuilt Cathedral on December 24, 1899. The rebuilt Cathedral was dedicated October 28, 1900, by the apostolic delegate to the United States, Archbishop Sebastian Martinelli.
Redecoration is Completed
It was another 14 years after the fire before the extensive decoration and artwork of the interior were finished. Savannah artist, Christopher Murphy, led the design and creation of the murals, and the stained glass windows, executed by the Innsbruck Glassmakers of the Austrian Tyrol, were installed by 1905.
Cathedral is Consecrated
Following the retirement of the church’s debt, which was a requirement for consecration at that time, Bishop Keiley was able to preside over the solemn consecration of the Cathedral in 1920.
Renovations Are Accomplished
The Most Reverend Thomas J. McDonough directed a renovation of the Cathedral between 1959 and 1963. Improvements included the entrance plaza and heating, cooling and lighting upgrades. A new decorative scheme was established based on the original color palette, and a new pulpit and altar rail were added.
Spire Repairs and Liturgical Updates
The twelfth bishop of Savannah, the Most Reverend Raymond W. Lessard, closed the church while the decaying timber foundations were replaced with reinforced concrete. Guided by the tenets of the Second Vatican Council, liturgical updates were executed, with the high altar placed for the celebrant to face the congregation.
Restoration for Two Anniversaries
In September 1998, the Most Reverend J. Kevin Boland, the thirteenth bishop of Savannah, commenced a major restoration for the Cathedral. Directed by the Cathedral Rector, Monsignor William O. O’Neill, the exterior project included the replacement of the slate roof. Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin was commissioned for the restoration of the decorative paint scheme, murals, stained glass and Stations of the Cross. The restoration was completed in November 2000 to honor the 150th anniversary of the diocese and the 100th anniversary of the rededication of the Cathedral.
November 29, 2000
Rededication of the Cathedral
The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist was rededicated on November 29, 2000. Bishop J. Kevin Boland was the celebrant at the Sesquicentennial Mass which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Savannah. William Cardinal Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore, was the homilist. Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, extended greetings from the Holy Father on behalf of Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.
Beatification of the Georgia Martyrs
Bishop J. Kevin Boland oversaw the official preparation of the case for beatification of the Georgia Martyrs. The Diocesan Inquiry came to a close in 2007. The official Acts of the Process was hand-carried to the Congregation of the Causes of Saints in Rome in late March 2007. The diocesan process for the beatification of the Georgia Martyrs was complete.
October 18, 2011
Gregory John Hartmayer was ordained and installed as the fourteenth Bishop of Savannah
Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Bishop J. Kevin Boland from the pastoral governance of the Diocese of Savannah and named Franciscan Father Gregory John Hartmayer, OFM Conv., a priest serving as pastor in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, to succeed him on July 19, 2011. On Tuesday, October 18, 2011, Gregory John Hartmayer was ordained and installed as the fourteenth Bishop of Savannah in the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. The Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of Atlanta, presided over the ceremony as the principal celebrant and consecrator. The Most Reverend J. Kevin Boland and the Most Reverend Luis Rafael Zarama assisted as co-consecrators.
2012 Steeples Cracked
In 2012, cracks were discovered in the steeples of the Cathedral. Some suspect the damage was caused by an August 2011 earthquake, centered 500 miles away near Washington, DC, that gently rocked upper floors of office buildings in downtown Savannah. The repair work of structural damage, as well as restoration to the rose window and several other windows on the facade of the Cathedral, was completed at a cost $1.5 million.
Bishop Hartmayer, a Conventual Franciscan, is working with the Holy Name Province of the Franciscans in the United States, which has been promoting the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs since the 1950s, to expedite the process. At the present moment, Father Giovangiuseppe Califano, OFM, the Postulator of the Cause, is overseeing the redaction of the final historical document which will be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints next year. Father Califano, previously involved in cases for the beatifications of Saints John XXIII and Junipero Serra, said the Georgia case is moving along in Rome. Though greater awareness of and devotion to the five martyrs is needed in Georgia where they ministered to the indigenous population.
His Holiness Pope Francis, through the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, recently issued a decree granting the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Savannah the title of Minor Basilica. This honor makes the Cathedral the first basilica in the Diocese of Savannah. Nationwide, there are just 87 churches, including 18 cathedrals, that carry this designation.
The 143-year-old Roman Catholic Cathedral will officially be named “The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist.”
Minor basilicas are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, and significance as centers of worship. A basilica must “stand out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy,” according to the 1989 Vatican document Domus ecclesiae.
The bestowal of the title initiates a very particular bond between the basilica and the Holy Father. Papal symbols signifying the relationship will be installed and blessed at an inaugural.