The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta  
Purification Church, Sharon

Photo by Michael Alexander,
The Georgia Bulletin

Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary Station, Sharon

Mission of:
Saint Joseph, Washington
around 1790

Note: The church and the old cemetery are under the care of Saint Joseph, Washington.

Brief History of Locust Grove and the Church of the Purification

The oldest history of the Archdiocese of Atlanta is written on the flyleaf of the 1822-1844 sacramental register of the Purification Church by Bishop John England. Catholics began settling in the Locust Grove area of Georgia around 1790 and were originally part of the mission territory of the Diocese of Baltimore. John England (1786-1842) was the first Bishop of Charleston from 1820-1842 and visited Purification Church several times. The original register has been restored and is housed in the Office of Archives and Records

Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary History

Georgia, established as a British colony in 1732, had been free of "Papists" since the abandonment of the Spanish missions on the Georgia coast in the 1600s. Catholic settlers did not begin moving back into Georgia until after the Revolutionary War. The first Catholic Diocese in America, the Diocese of Baltimore, was established in 1789, the same year that George Washington was named the first U.S. president. Around 1790, a group of Catholic families from Port Tobacco, Maryland, first settled in an area that was in Wilkes (now Taliaferro) County, Georgia. They called their new home "Mary Land" for a number of years and eventually it became "Locust Grove" (not to be confused by the current Locust Grove in Henry County). It has been determined that the Catholics did not move to Georgia because of religious persecution in Maryland, but to find opportunity. After Georgia became the fourth state in the new United States of America, the state constitution guaranteed "free toleration of all religions," including Catholicism.

While little is known about the early Catholic settlers in Georgia, the first groups were Irishmen from Maryland and Virginia. Later a second group of French refugees, led by a Father Souze, settled in Georgia. Some sought to escape the French Revolution of the 1790s and others the slave revolts in Santo Domingo in the Caribbean.

In 1792, Bishop John Carroll in Baltimore sent missionary priest Father John Le Moyne to minister to the Catholic community in Locust Grove, Augusta, and Savannah. Georgia's oldest Catholic cemetery at Locust Grove was established with the first burial in 1794 (listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006). Father Le Moyne died that same year after which Father O'Reilly arrived and served in the areas of Warren, Wilkes and Columbia Counties. In 1796, Father Oliver Le Mercier became the "first pastor to Catholics in Georgia" and resided at Locust Grove for two years. He relocated his headquarters to Savannah in 1798. According to various historical accounts, the first church structure in Locust Grove was a log cabin built in 1801.

Sometime between 1818 and 1821, Locust Grove Academy was established in Locust Grove by an order of French nuns, the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Three of the Academy students later became Georgian governors. During those years, a third group of settlers from Ireland arrived at Locust Grove and the town grew. The Catholics built a frame church in 1821 and by 1824 the church was referred to as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1826 the church was incorporated by an act of the Georgia General Assembly. It eventually served the stations in Washington, Crawfordville, Athens, Louisville, Sparta, and one in South Carolina. During that time, the church was in its peak, though it began to decline soon after.

In the 1830s, most of the French settlers began to move away from the area. Families began to sell their plantations and move to Mississippi to chase rumors of better farmland. Many of the plantations were bought by Protestant families, which contributed to the decline of Catholics in the area. Yellow fever claimed many of the remaining Irish families and the Catholic population deteriorated even more. By the time of the Civil War, most of what was left of the Catholic community had moved from Locust Grove to the nearby town of Sharon, which was located along the railroad.  In 1877, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary church officially moved to Sharon.

Fr. J. M. O'Brien relocated and reassembled the old 1821 church structure in Sharon. It was later abandoned and used as a peach house. Another cemetery was built on an old gypsy camping area behind the church.

The current frame church in Sharon was built in 1883 across the street from the cemetery. A year later, what had been Locust Grove Academy moved to Sharon as well, under the name Sacred Heart School for Boys. With Sharon becoming something of a railroad center for the cotton crops on nearby plantations, it seemed as if the relocation of the church would be beneficial. However, boll weevils invaded in the early 1900s and decimated the cotton crop that sustained the town. Again, plantations were sold and people moved away.

Over the course of the 20th century, the population of Sharon continued to decline until it dwindled to about 150 people in the 1980s. The Catholic community suffered similarly; in the 1980s, the number of parishioners only numbered 7. In light of the dwindling population, Purification was downgraded to a station church in 2001 under the charge of Saint Joseph's parish in Washington, Georgia.

All that remains of the original church in Locust Grove are a few foundation stones and the old restored cemetery, which is mainly dominated by Irish settlers who died from yellow fever. The Locust Grove cemetery, as well as the second cemetery at Sharon, both contain important fragments of a nearly forgotten history. Notable Georgians such as Flannery O'Connor and Margaret Mitchell can trace their family origins back to the early settlements in eastern Georgia. More importantly, in preserving the history of Locust Grove and Sharon, one also preserves the roots and remnants of Catholic history in Georgia.

Provided by the Office of Archives and Records
September 2013