Local News Archive
Print Issue: August 3, 1978
First Catholic Church In Georgia On Decline
(Reprinted from The Augusta Chronicle)
SHARON, GA -- With the death of Mrs. Leona Darden on June 18, the Purification Catholic Church diminished further in membership.
"Now there are only about 12 people left in the congregation of the first Catholic Church in Georgia," says a member.
Mrs. Darden was 84, almost the age of the pretty white weatherboard church, which stands on the outskirts of Sharon on the road to Ficklin and Washington (Rt. 47).
This is its third location.
Originally called Locust Grove, the church was founded by people from Maryland and Virginia about 1790.
"The believers held to their faith as best they could without a church, priest or high altar," says Mrs. Pearly Baker of nearby McDuffie County, who has published a history of the church plus a listing of the graves in the old cemetery. "A log church was erected in 1792, and a priest, John LeMoin, sent from Baltimore."
The original site is several miles south of Sharon, off a clay road that winds past the handsome Darden home. The rock-walled cemetery takes in two to three acres. The first church was build within these walls.
There are 200 acres here owned by the church and leased to a pulpwood company which has cut out considerable timber, not always carefully," says the church member. "You can see how many of the fine old stones are broken and over-turned. Of course some of this damage has been dome by the passing of time, trees growing up in the plots, and so on."
Locust Grove cemetery is a tangle of old-fashioned running roses, remnants of flowering bulbs, bird song, scurrying lizards, blackberries, and gentle silence.
Most of the stones are fine marble, cut with religious symbols, and occasionally full-length Latin inscriptions.
Buried here are priests and doctors, a few with French names, but most with Irish patronyms. Nearly all of the latter say, "Born in Tipperary County," or Wexford, County Galway, County Kerry, County Carlow, Dublin, etc.
"In 1800 exiled French from Santo Domingo joined the colony and brought a priest with them, the Reverend Sujet. When he left, Locust Grove was without a priest except when one could be obtained from Augusta," says Mrs. Baker. "In 1821, the Reverend Dr. John England was appointed, and it was he who founded the church inside this cemetery. He was an inspired preacher and people came from miles regardless of creed, to hear him. Sometimes he stood outside the church because the crowds couldn't get in."
The French families -- Menard, Belliance Rossignol, Du Perry, Printiere, DeLoucey -- moved away, and Irish came in the early 1800s. In 1818, Locust Grove Academy was founded in Sharon. Many Georgia "greats" were educated there, including Alexander Stephens. It has been gone for years.
Yellow fever struck, and decimated the Irish. Then the Georgia Plantations were purchased by the Protestants. In 1877, the church was moved to Sharon, with a greatly reduced membership. It stood across the road from the present building.
"At about this time, a school was built in front of the church, the old derelict building next to the present church," says the member. "The date is given as 1878, and it was called Sacred Heart Seminary. It was twice its present size, because it had a large wing plus a kitchen. The water was obtained from a deep well and pumped by a horse going 'round and 'round, like a syrup mill. There were gardens, and the academy was operated by nuns."
Eventually the school closed, but it was reopened for a short period as a nursing home for the aged.
It has been unoccupied for years according to one member, who adds, "I wish someone would either take it down or restore it. As it stands, it's a great danger to the church if it catches on fire."
Across the road from the old Academy is a second Catholic cemetery. This is where Mrs. Darden was buried. The services were conducted by Father Augustine Cometto. Locust Grove is in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
"The ground that cemetery occupies was once a gypsy camping-place," says the resident. "The Sherwoods and Carrolls were great horse-traders, and sometimes when they went away on a trading trip, they left their children with the Catholic nuns at the school."
Returning to the old cemetery, the resident points out special stones: to Dr. Ignatius Semmes, who died at 67 in 1834; to a two-year-old boy, Master Thomas Mulleedy, whose stone is made of marble with pink streaks; to Guilielmi T. Quinlan, M.D., whose stone says: "Qui circiter trigessimum quantum suae astatis annum mortem Obiit decimo septimo Octobris, A.D. MDCCCXXXII;" and a stone shaped like a cross -- as are many -- to Joseph Broke who died in 1856 at 73. It says, "A wit's a feather, a chief's a rod, But here is laid, the noblest work of God."