Photo Courtesy of paulhami
Filled with spirit, the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist stands proud on East Harris Street in historic Savannah. Well over a century of heritage lies within the architecture and detailing of the structure which currently serves as the Mother Church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah. Inclusive in the Diocese are over ninety county seats in Georgia. Consecrated as a Christian house of worship, the Cathedral offers sixteen orations per week with additional time set aside for confessionals each Saturday.
Photo courtesy of TravelingOtter
The church, which began as a small wooden building, suffered dismal beginnings. The original colonial charter initially forbade Roman Catholics from establishing a place of worship in Savannah. After the American Revolution, however, the ban was lifted which allowed the original congregation to organize around 1796. Immigrants then began organized worship in 1799 and as the members grew, inspiration for a second church emerged. Some worshippers eventually chose to depart from the original church and a second was dedicated in 1839. Over a quarter century later, construction began on the original Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist. Diligence and perseverance led to the addition of the two spires, signifying its glorious completion in 1896.
Soon after, tragedy struck when the Cathedral caught fire in the winter of 1898. As the settlers watched, the building burned and was very nearly destroyed. Then Bishop, Thomas A. Becker declared, “The Cathedral must be rebuilt, and as soon as possible.” Preparation to rebuild began almost immediately, and the new Cathedral was dedicated October 28, 1900. Various restoration activities have taken place over the years to include a plaza addition, re-leading of many of the stained glass windows, and the replacement of a slate roof. Once available, modern heating, cooling, and lighting systems were also added, providing a modicum of modern convenience. The wrath of the 1898 fire was followed years later by a hurricane and while the Cathedral did not suffer nearly the damage as before, additional repairs were necessary.
Standing tall, the present day building inhabits a large expanse on Lafayette Square. USA Today Travel lists the St. John Cathedral as one of the “10 Best Sights to See” while in Savannah GA. It is no wonder it received this accolade with features like the extraordinary stained glass windows, murals which are “second to none” and the 9,000 pound altar made of Carrar marble. Renowned as one of the most visually striking buildings in downtown, the Cathedral keenly summons travelers. The façade exhibits two identical, Gothic styled spires which reach into the air, dominating the sky. After several decades of renovation, this matching pair now holds elements of style which intertwine both historical and contemporary architecture ideals.
Photo courtesy of Boonlong1
Once inside, the display only intensifies as each of the eighty one stained glass windows shimmer with a myriad of colors. The awe inspiring display is difficult to describe and just as difficult to turn from while attending a service. One visitor states, “The tourists within the congregation are recognizable by their straining necks and slack-jawed stares”. The brightly colored windows, placed in chronological succession, tell the story of Jesus and his mother Mary. Each glass pane was handcrafted in Austria by the Innsbruck Glassmakers. They were installed in the Cathedral around 1904 after the reconstruction from the fire of 1898. Elegantly, one display stands out from the rest. The Great Rose Window, located directly above the organ is a quatrefoil, with St. Cecilia, the patroness of music in the center. The window spans twenty feet in diameter and holds ten radiations from the center which each contain celestial figures singing and attending to musical instruments. This particular showpiece is most often recognized as the pinnacle sight to see while visiting the Cathedral. Poised on the imposing front edifice, the Rose window adds a masterful touch to the scenery.
Photo courtesy of donovanhouse
Speaking of musical instruments, the Cathedral’s steeple bell weighs more than 4,700 pounds! This monstrosity was cast in Baltimore, Maryland in 1900. Hanging almost one hundred feet in the air, the bell can be heard for miles and miles. Spotting the chime is not any more difficult than hearing it since it stands nearly fifty feet tall. Since the Cathedral is in the center of the Historic District, walking from one of the many other attractions in downtown will allow you to enjoy the same experience this visitor did, “The only distraction was the sheer magnificence of the of the church. It was easy to get pulled out of concentration as I found myself approaching”.
In the early twentieth century, it was uncommon for most people to own a personal copy of the Bible. In an effort to compensate for the lack of written teachings, the church supplemented sermons through artwork such as the murals which fill the Cathedral. Religious murals are often filled with symbolism used to suggest dedication to a particular ideology. Several symbols representing the Catholic faith are brilliantly shown inside the church. Depictions of saints are embedded in the artistic landscape showcasing a glimpse of the connection between God and humanity. A lamb which symbolizes purity on one wall and a set of keys illuminating the "Keys to the Kingdom" are just a few in the display. Father Schadewell ordered the murals during the Cathedral's renovation in the early twentieth century and Christopher P.H. Murphy, a local Savannah artist, provided oversight to the development and placement. The murals were viewed for the first time by the public when the Cathedral re-opened in May 1912.
Father Gerry Schreck is the newest pastor at St. John the Baptist Cathedral succeeding Monsignor William O’Neill. Schrek was an altar boy for the Cathedral when he was seven years old and the new rector exclaims, “I’m delighted to be going to the cathedral, I think the cathedral is a real jewel for Savannah and the Diocese of Savannah.” Made mostly of brick, copper and terra cotta the building truly is a spectacle with more than 28,000 square feet! Helping to watch over the church and its worshippers, sixteen gargoyles can be found peering from the steeples. Special events such as weddings, dedicated prayer ceremonies and personal blessings are among the most popular privately scheduled requests but be sure to make plans to attend the public events at this venue, as well. With festivities like Holiday Pops in December and Handel’s Messiah in February, the Cathedral is delightful any time of year!