The first of its kind, in a Georgia now gone.
By A.D.1790, the former British colonies had risen up to create a new nation, the United States of America. It was then that a group of English Catholic families from Maryland, lured by the fertile lands and religious tolerance of Georgia, moved to what was then Wilkes (now Taliaferro) County and established a farming community. They called their settlement Mary Land.
Soon, French Catholics fleeing the revolution in their country and the slave revolt in Haiti joined them. With their first burial in 1794, they established a cemetery. Later, Irish settlers came, including the ancestors of author’s Margaret Mitchell and Flannery O’Connor.
Their little village of Mary Land eventually became known as Locust Grove. The settlers built their first church, literally just a log cabin, in 1801. Somewhere between 1818 and 1821, the Sisters of St. Joseph, a French order, established the first Catholic school in Georgia, chartered as Locust Grove Academy. It was to be the alma mater of three future governors of Georgia, including Alexander Stephens from nearby Crawfordville, the Vice President of the Confederate States of America and a U.S. Representative both before and after the Civil War.
By 1840 Locust Grove was the center of Catholic life in much of Georgia. It had already been home to the state’s first Catholic pastor, a French priest by the name of Father Oliver LeMercier. The parish had grown to serve a number of remote “stations” (usually homes where Catholics gathered for Mass and confession). These were located in or near Washington, Crawfordville, Athens, Louisville, Sparta and even across the Savannah River in South Carolina.
A new beginning and then…
The log church in Locust Grove eventually was replaced by a larger frame structure in 1821. By the time of the Civil War, however, most of the Catholic community in Locust Grove had moved to other states or to the nearby town of Sharon, which had sprung up along the railroad that was built through the area in the 1850s. In 1877, the Church of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary moved to Sharon, which entailed the relocation of the wood frame church originally built in 1821.
In 1883, with the old frame church no longer adequate for the parish’s needs, the present church was built. It was a bright, beautiful building, almost indistinguishable from Protestant churches of the time. Communicants arrived to a white clapboard church drawn by the peal of its bell, the same bell we hear today. Then, as now, towering double-hung sash windows let in generous amounts of light to the nave.
A year later, in 1884, Locust Grove Academy was also moved to Sharon, into a large frame structure built next to the new church. It was renamed Sacred Heart School for Boys.
Other than the old cemetery, the community that was Locust Grove slowly disappeared.
Daily, trains rolled in and out of Sharon laden with cotton from surrounding plantations. It was a bustling community well into the early 20th century, but the onset of the boll weevil during and after 1915 decimated the cotton economy in Georgia and Sharon. Plantations were sold. People moved elsewhere.
Over the course of the 20th century, the population of Sharon slowly dwindled, as did the number of Catholics there. In 2001, the Archdiocese of Atlanta downgraded Purification Church to station status under St. Joseph’s parish in Washington, its former station.
The church that was once the center of early Catholic life in Georgia now perilously hangs on, essentially abandoned.
Not all is lost.
Times past occasionally return in the form of surprising celebrations today.
At Christmas Eve Mass in 2012, the Church of the Purification was filled to standing room only capacity.
Together, let’s make that Christmas at Sharon a sign of many celebrations to come. Let’s bring Purification Church back to life.