The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist is one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in the United States.
It was completed in 1876 and has been a fixture of the city ever since. This historic cathedral is located on East Liberty Street and stands tall as a symbol of faith, beauty, and community for the people of Savannah. The cathedral is home to a rich history and heritage, with its Neo-Gothic exterior and an ornate interior featuring stained glass windows, marble columns, handcrafted statues, and more. Inside the sanctuary itself, you can find the remarkable marble altar and a booming organ that plays during service. The interior’s stained glass windows adorn both sides of the nave, as well as a large barrel-vaulted ceiling that towers above the main altar.
Below is list of events in this Church’s illustrious history. The information is courtesy of www.savannahcathedral.org.
- 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 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) repaired following hurricane damage, enlarged and named the Cathedral.
- New Cathedral 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 laid
- The Right Reverend William H. Gross, C.Ss.R., laid the cornerstone of the new Cathedral on November 19, 1873. The new structure dedicated to “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” a name the Cathedral retained for ten years.
- Cathedral 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 Added
- The Right Reverend Thomas A. Becker completed the Cathedral with the building of the spires in 1896. The brick structure 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 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 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 finished with new decorative scheme.
- 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.
- 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 restored of the decorative paint scheme, murals, stained glass and Stations of the Cross. Restoration 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
- Bishop J. Kevin Boland led the Sesquicentennial Mass which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Savannah. Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, extended greetings from the Holy Father on behalf of Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.
- 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. The diocesan process for the beatification of the Georgia Martyrs was complete.
October 18, 2011
- 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 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 appeared in the steeples of the Cathedral. Some suspect the damage was caused by an August 2011 earthquake. The earthquake 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. It has been promoting the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs since the 1950s, to expedite the process. Father Giovangiuseppe Califano, OFM, the Postulator of the Cause, is overseeing the redaction of the final historical document.
- Most Reverend Stephen D. Parkes appointed the fifteenth Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah by His Holiness Pope Francis on July 8, 2020. He was consecrated and installed on September 23, 2020, at the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, Savannah by Archbishop Gregory John Hartmayer, OFM Conv.
- 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 officially named “The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist.”
- 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.
Whether you’re looking for a place to worship or simply enjoy the beauty and culture of Savannah, the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist is an essential destination.
They offer weekly services, study classes, retreats, and more to foster spiritual growth and community. The church also has an active parish community made up of over 1,400 members who attend weekly Masses. Visitors can take a tour of the church and get a glimpse into its timeless beauty and unparalleled history. Plan your visit today to see this remarkable example of faith and beauty in Savannah.