In our almost 200 page application to receive the basilica designation, we detailed how those who preceded us had to overcome religious prejudice to establish the faith in Georgia, and whose worship as Roman Catholics was prohibited by the Royal Colonial Charter.
In the late eighteenth century, after the Bill of Rights was passed granting religious freedom to all, French émigrés fleeing revolutions in France and Haiti found refuge in Savannah. Once here, they established Savannah’s first Catholic parish, the Congrégation de Saint Jean-Baptiste. The original church quickly became inadequate to serve the growing population as immigrants from Ireland came to Savannah in great numbers. The Church of St. John the Baptist was built in the late 1830s and became a cathedral in 1850 when the Diocese of Savannah was established with the Right Reverend Francis X. Gartland as its first bishop.
The current Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was solemnly dedicated on April 30, 1876. Sadly, on Sunday, February 6, 1898, the cathedral was almost totally destroyed by fire. The rebuilt cathedral was dedicated on October 28, 1900 by Archbishop Sebastian Martinelli, Apostolic Delegate to the United States as the representative of His Holiness Pope Leo XIII.
Today it is an active place of worship and the seat of the Diocese of Savannah that includes ninety counties in southern Georgia.
The Catholic faith has been nurtured in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for over 143 years.
Numerous accolades were also cited attesting to the exemplary nature of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist as a church of utmost historical, architectural, artistic and spiritual significance, one that attracts over 300,000 visitors annually.
In reviewing our application, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments pointed out that they were not in the practice of granting the title of Minor Basilica to a cathedral church, and that “very particular and compelling reasons” would be required for a cathedral to receive the title.
In their final approval notification, the Congregation commented that they were “moved by the history of the Cathedral and felt that strengthening of her association with the Holy Father was merited.”
The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist is the 87th church in the United States to be named a basilica and one of only 18 cathedrals to receive the designation.