Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist historical marker was dedicated on November 17, 2007. View the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Kelly Flanagan as part of her SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is one of the most inspirational buildings in historic Savannah. With its soaring French Gothic spires, the cathedral is a symbol of resilience. From its humble beginnings in the 17th century through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and beyond, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist has a remarkable history of perseverance. In 1898, the cathedral endured a devastating fire that almost completely destroyed the structure; in 2003, it survived an arson attack. The subsequent reconstructions of the cathedral illustrate the strong sense of community in Savannah throughout the past and into the future.

Although English Protestants formally founded the city of Savannah, Catholics were the first to arrive in the area under the Spanish monarchy. Savannah originally fell under the Diocese of Baltimore.[i] The first, small wooden church of St. John was constructed between Liberty, Montgomery and State Streets in 1800. It was later replaced by a brick church in 1839. Catholic Bishop Ignatius Persico (1870-1872), fourth Bishop of Savannah, took steps through Rome to build a new cathedral located in the parish of Savannah, Georgia.[ii] The land on Abercorn and Harris streets was owned by the Sisters of Mercy and was originally employed as a garden project. The plot of land was then reclaimed for the new location. Supervision of the new cathedral’s construction fell upon Savannah’s Bishop William H. Gross. The cornerstone of the new structure was laid on November 19, 1873.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the cathedral on February 6, 1898.[iii] As city firemen were engaged in fighting a great riverfront fire along River and Williamson Streets, a motorman of the City and Suburban Railway discovered a fire engulfing St. John the Baptist Cathedral. Due to the extensive fire on the riverfront, there was too little water pressure available to put out the cathedral’s fire. According to Savannah: The Morning News, “the Cathedral St. John the Baptist, one of the most magnificent and imposing structures of Savannah, upon which years of toil and thousands of dollars have been spent, is a mass of ruin, and nothing remains but its four walls and indestructible parts of its two tall spires.”[iv]

In a remarkable example of Savannah’s sense of community, the first to contribute to the rebuilding of the Cathedral was Fitzhugh Lee White, the six-year-old son of Rev. Robb White, rector of Christ Church.[v] He offered five dollars (140 dollars today), which was the entire contents of his piggy bank. On October 28, 1900, Archbishop Sebastian Martinelli, apostolic delegate to the United States, dedicated the reconstructed Cathedral. The extensive restoration of the interior was completed thirteen years after the fire.[vi] Savannah artist Christopher Murphy led the design and creation of the decorative murals; the elaborate stained glass windows were executed by the Innsbruck Glassmakers of the Austrian Tyrol, circa 1904.[vii] Almost a century later in September 1998, the Cathedral once again underwent a major restoration.[viii] The slate roof was replaced, and Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin was commissioned for the restoration of the decorative murals, stained glass, and Stations of the Cross. The restoration was completed in November 2000.[ix]

On October 7, 2003, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was once again involved in a fire.[x] A lone gunman entered the cathedral, setting fire to the altar before police removed him. Extensive damage was done, including destruction of the wooden pulpit and Bishop’s throne. Once again, showing the same generosity that followed the fire of 1898, the community of Savannah rallied together and through many donations, restored the cathedral to its original glory.


[i] “The First Cathedral.” Diocesan Archives, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

[ii] Gillian Brown; Father Douglas K. Clark, STL; Dr. David T. Gleeson; and Sister Mary Faith McKean, RSM, One Faith, One Family: The Diocese of Savannah 1850-2000, ed. Mary Jane BeVard (Syracuse: Signature Publications, Inc., 2000).

[iii] Imprimatur Thomas J. McDonough, D.D., JCD and Censor Librorum T. James McNamara V.G., V.F., P.A., Our Heritage, Our Future: The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist 1799 – 1963 (Savannah: Diocese of Savannah, 1963).

[iv] “The Cathedral In Ruins,” Savannah: The Morning News, February 7, 1898.

[v] McDonough and McNamara, Our Heritage, Our Future.

[vi] “The First Cathedral.”

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Audrey D. McCombs, “Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Closes: Renovations Could Take Up to 18 Months,” Savannah Morning News, June 28, 1999, 1A, 7A.

[ix] Brown et al., One Faith, One Family.

[x] John Carrington, “Gunman Sets Fire Inside Cathedral; Arrested Without Incident,” Savannah Morning News, October 7, 2003.

1. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist marker text, 2014. Courtesy of Kelly Flanagan.

2. Bishop Francis Xavier Gartland, first Bishop of Savannah (1850-1854). Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

3. Bishop Ignatius Persico, fourth Bishop of Savannah (1870-72). Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

4.Bishop Gross. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

5. Pope Leo the 13th. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

6. Father Benjamin J. Keiley. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

7. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, 1876. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

8. Aftermath of the fire of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, February 7, 1898. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

9. Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist reconstruction, 1898. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

10. Reconstruction of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist exterior. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

11. Reconstruction of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist interior vaulting. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

12. Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, 1900. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

13. Re-dedication of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Apostolic Delegate MGR. Martinelli, 1900. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

14. Dedication of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1900. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

15. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1900. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

16. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 1900. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

17. Redecoration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist completed, 1912. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

18. Completed restoration of the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, 2000. Courtesy of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.

19. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 2014. Courtesy of Kelly Flanagan.

20.Interior stained glass windows, Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, 2014. Courtesy of Kelly Flanagan.


Further Reading

Gilliam Brown; Father Douglas K. Clark, STL; Dr. David T. Gleeson; and Sister Mary Faith McKean, RSM. One Faith, One Family: The Diocese of Savannah 1850-2000. Edited by Mary Jane BeVard. Syracuse: Signature Publications, Inc., 2000.

John Carrington, “Gunman sets fire inside Cathedral; arrested without incident.” Savannah Morning News, October 7, 2003.

Imprimatur Thomas J. McDonough, D.D., JCD and Censor Librorum T. James McNamara V.G., V.F., P.A., Our Heritage, Our Future: The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist 1799 – 1963. Savannah: Diocese of Savannah, 1963.

Marie Layne, “U.S.A. Shrines Georgia: Gold Crosses Atop Lofty Spires.” North American Voices of Fatima, February 29, 1972, 3.

Audrey D. McCombs, “Cathedral of St. John the Baptist Closes: Renovations Could Take Up to 18 Months.” Savannah Morning News, June 28, 1999, 1A, 7A.

Jerry Simmons, “Accessions Sheet.” Diocese of Savannah Archives, January 26, 1990.

“The Cathedral In Ruins,” Savannah: The Morning News, February 7, 1898.

“The First Cathedral,” Diocesan Archives, The Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.