• Historic Columbus

Columbus, Georgia Downtown Churches: Church of the Holy Family (Part 5 of 6)

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Sources: Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr., Historic Columbus Foundation Archive, Brief History of Holy Family Parish by Mary Margaret Byrne, Catholic Parish Life in the Antebellum South: Columbus, Georgia 1830 -1860 by Michael J. McNally, and the Sisters of Mercy Collection at the Columbus State University Archives.

Columbus was thrown open for public sale in 1828. Distances were not vast, and the territory was small, so there was no form of a “stampede” such as Oklahoma experienced in later years. In the original charter, a block between what is now 11th and 12th Streets, and 2nd and 3rd Avenues was ceded to the Methodist and Baptist denominations to share. A petition was presented to the Legislature by early Catholic settlers seeking state lands for their church, and the Legislature again ceded a block, to be shared by the Catholic and Presbyterian denominations. On December 28, 1831, the Legislature granted this request. The piece of property was a full city block and lay between what is now 7th and 8th Streets and 2nd and 3rd Avenues with a wide alley separating the two parcels of land – now called Chapel Street.

The Catholics built on their property and the small Catholic population centered around their church. Not only was a wooden church building built, but a rectory (pictured above) was also constructed on the northeast corner of 7th Street and 2nd Avenue. The name of St. Philip and St. James was chosen for the first church. Columbus’ first more permanent pastor did not arrive until 1835, the Rev. Father James Graham. The church was not available for worship until 1839. (*editor's note: No trace remains today of the old church, but the rectory was moved in the early 1970s to 412 Broadway in the Columbus Historic District.) The Panic of 1837 had a devastating economic effect particularly upon southwest Georgia. Two railroad building projects, proposed before 1837 to link Columbus with the rest of Georgia and with Alabama, were tabled until the 1840s. This economic depression helps explain why Columbus’ Catholic Church was not opened until 1839.

Another characteristic of the 1830s was increased immigration, especially of Irish Catholics, more than 35,000 of whom emigrated from Ireland to the United States from 1830 to 1840. The majority of the 30 or 40 parishioners at St. Philip and St. James in 1832 were Irish. The small congregation was also comprised of Germans, African Americans, French, and French Canadians. The second largest group was Germans, representing 21%. The rising tide of immigration to America resulted in reactions of fear and prejudice by many Protestants. Rev. Father Graham publicly defended his mostly immigrant flock in 1840 against attacks. His learning, his self-confidence, his popularity among influential Protestants with whom he shared a common educational and social background, made his defense credible. Father Graham was also responsible for the construction of the church building and rectory. He was transferred to Macon in 1840. The second largest Catholic ethnic group baptized during the antebellum period was African Americans, a total of 112. However, this number should not imply that any serious evangelization was conducted among the enslaved population or among free people of color or that the parish was slowly turning into an African American one. At least 90 percent of these antebellum African American baptisms were of infants or children less than six years old and done at the request of the Catholic slave owner. The motivation of the owners largely being to protect the health of the child, not to raise them Catholic. A few free people of color were also baptized in the antebellum period – two were adult converts and two were small children. An African American woman named Clara appears as a sponsor at free people of color’s baptism, both infants and adults. She may have been a Catholic leader and evangelist within Columbus’ small free Black community. Records reveal the average number of annual baptisms from 1840 through 1860 was 36.1 per year. In the earlier years, the numbers also represented people residing outside of town, but by the 1850s the figures represent an increasing number of Catholics living closer to Columbus.

Columbus continued to see a rapid change of pastors. In 1854, Michael Cullinan arrived in Columbus. He provided parish life with much needed stability. Under his leadership, membership increased. Cullinan worked faithfully among all classes of society, especially with the poor and orphans. Through his numerous missionary travels, he maintained contact with the scattered Catholics outside of Columbus. He remained in Columbus until 1861 and then returned again in 1863 until 1866. Throughout the antebellum period pastors of St. Philip and St. James were expected to be circuit riders, missionaries seeking out and celebrating the Sacraments with Catholics widely scattered in small pockets throughout thousands of square miles, while at the same time taking every opportunity to explain Catholicism to Protestants. Conscientious pastors spent many hours of arduous travel on steamboats and on horseback. Given the lack of communications and unpredictability of travel, Catholics were never precisely sure when a priest would arrive. Yet, Catholics removed by distance from the parish were not the only ones deprived of the regular presence and ministry of their pastor. The people of Columbus were also. When off on a missionary journey, the pastor was unavailable to town folks. Parishioners in Columbus had no daily Mass, sometimes no Sunday Mass. They had to rely on their own personal and family devotions in the “domestic church” to sustain them spiritually.

It took energy and effort to maintain Catholicism in the South. Bishops and priests needed to have physical stamina and spiritual strength. Some could not take the difficulties and the loneliness; others found their health deteriorated by the demands of their itinerant ministry. The role of the “domestic church” and the trustees were important for preserving Catholicism under less-than-ideal conditions. In addition, southern priests had a closer relation with their parishioners since they depended on their cooperation and personal support to sustain them in their pastoral work. Their front missionary spirit created strong bonds of loyalty among Catholics. So close was this identification of priests to people that wen Father Michael Cullinan, who was at the time pastor of Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, was dying, he returned to Columbus to spend his last days among his beloved people. He died at the age of fifty-eight on February 23, 1877. As a sign of the esteem, he was held by his people, he was entombed on the grounds of the church on 7th Street and 2nd Avenue. When a new church was built in 1880 – at its current location – his body was transferred and buried in front of the renamed Church of the Holy Family. Cullinan’s remains are still there today, the only priest ever so honored by his Columbus parishioners.

One bright spot during the early years of the Civil War for St. Philip and St. James was the coming of a band of sisters, Sisters of Mercy, from St. Augustine, Florida. The Sisters taught in the neighborhood of the church while it was on 7th Street and Second Avenue until they moved uptown to the corner known as the convent corner at 12th Street and 3rd Avenue. The house and gardens were the former home of the James Shorter family, the grandparents of the artist Edward Shorter – who was also a relative of the Kyle family whose home is on the corner across from the convent. The house was built for James Shorter as a wedding present from his father. In 1868, the Sisters of Mercy purchased the brick-and-stucco, Regency-style house with Greek Revival elements. The Sisters made the Shorter House suitable for use as a convent and day school and opened St. Joseph’s Academy. As the school grew, they added a wing, doubling the size of the school. Until the turn of the century, the Sisters operated St. Joseph’s Academy as a boarding school for young ladies, as well as a day school.

Once the Sisters moved uptown, discussion began for another church for Columbus’ Catholic congregation. Father Kersh had been named pastor in 1878, and he immediately began to make plans for a new church to be built on the rose garden of the Shorter home (now St. Joseph’s Academy). The new church was dedicated on May 12, 1880 and renamed The Church of The Holy Family. The Gothic and Byzantine architecture was designed by Daniel Matthew Foley, an Irish-born architect. Tudor arches define all of the openings of the building. Crenelated parapets define the slope of the roofline on the front façade. The church has a gothic floor plan and interior detailing. To the east of the church entrance is an attached two-story rectory that forms an ell to the main sanctuary.

Daniel Matthew Foley was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1811. He was married to Mary Fleming Foley and together, the couple had thirteen children. Daniel was an architect and builder of sixteen churches across the United States, including Holy Family here in Columbus. Mr. Foley died in Columbus at the age of 85. Located inside the steeple is 1,500-pound bell cast by the Holbrook Bell Foundry in East Midway, Massachusetts in 1879. It was donated by Francis J. and Emelie G. Springer in 1881. A Latin inscription on the bell tells of a Christian saint, Barbara, who dies around 300 AD. Her pagan father once locked her in a tower because he thought she was too beautiful and would one day marry and leave him. While in the tower, Barbara was inspired by the beauty of creation around her and converted to Christianity. The Springer’s daughter Adele would marry Daniel Foley’s youngest child, Theobald.

This rare interior view of a church was published locally be Columbus Office Supply Company. The interior looked like this from 1945 to 1964.(Columbus, Georgia in Vintage Postcards, Kenneth H. Thomas Jr.


It was in 1952 that a new school, then known as Holy Family School, was built on a tract of land off Macon Road beyond what was then Columbus Square. The Sisters continued to live at St. Joseph’s until 1964, when a convent was built adjacent to the school. St. Anne’s parish had been established there in 1961, and the school became St. Anne’s School. The building that housed St. Joseph’s was then used as a parish hall until it was torn down in 1971 to make way for a new social center. The new school was equipped with nine classrooms, accommodating more than 400 students. St. Anne Parish and school was the vision of Msgr. Herman J. Deimel, then pastor of Holy Family Parish. Until St. Anne Church was built in 1961, the school operated under the name Holy Family School, and was operated by Holy Family Parish. Msgr. Deimel served as pastor of St. Anne Church from 1961 until 1966.

On September 2, 1958, Holy Family High School was established in Columbus, Georgia, to fill the void in local Catholic education facilities. The Most Rev. Thomas J. McDonough, then Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah, and Msgr. Deimel decided to honor the late Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli. Consequently, the name of the school was changed and Pacelli was born. When established in 1958, Pacelli High School was owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Savannah, under the direct supervision of the Bishop and Superintendent of Schools. On July 1, 1997, St. Anne Parish assumed ownership and governance of Pacelli High School. In 1999, St. Anne School dedicated a new expansion of facilities. This allowed the school to offer a second class per grade – Kindergarten through 8th grade. In the early-2000s, St. Anne School was situated on 23 acres of land with St. Anne Parish and Pacelli High School.

Also in the late 1950s, south Columbus caught the eye of Catholic leaders in Ireland, who saw potential mission work here in a school. The main draw, as they saw it, was Fort Benning and the growing industrialization and expansion in the wider community. Our Lady Of Lourdes Catholic Church was built in 1958, in close proximity to Fort Benning. Archbishop O’Hara originally intended to send Irish nuns in the Ursuline order to Savannah to run a “catechetical centre,” for spiritual formation. He received another suggestion from the diocese that a Catholic school on Columbus’ south side was needed as well. The archbishop agreed, and four nuns prepared for flight to their new mission post. A fifth, their Superior, accompanied them but didn’t stay.

In 2003, the bell at Holy Family was removed for repairs. However, it would only be a few more years for the church to need one of its largest preservation projects. In 2007, the sanctuary underwent significant renovations. Conrad Schmitt Studios spearheaded the massive effort which included new paint and stenciling on the ceiling and walls; new stained glass; improved lighting and acoustics; new ambo and ambry; and a new hand-carved crucifix from Italy. Additionally, the front of the sanctuary features a type of dimensional painting technique called “trompe l’oeil,” (French for “fools the eye”), to give the appearance of real columns. During the nine months of work, worshippers temporarily met across the street from the church at St. Mary’s Hall.

The Church of the Holy Family conducts many outreach programs to help those in our community. Much of their current programming centers around assisting the homeless population in Columbus. The church has also emphasized the education of its parishioners and strengthened interfaith understanding. The first interfaith service was held at Holy Family in 1970. "We adjust with the times. We, of this generation are a changing church in rapidly changing times. We are a constantly changing downtown parish in a fast moving community. While our goals and visions may differ from past generations and the forefathers of our faith, our dedication and generosity must be no less than theirs. We must not sit back and feel we have reached our destination." F.R. William O'Neill, Pastor 1980.


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