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An incident at St. John the Baptist

Originally Appeared in : 9905-2/28/19
On Sunday, Feb. 6, 1803, a Catholic priest arrived to Savannah and the small Catholic community requested that he celebrate Mass. Father Oliver Le Mercier had once been assigned to the parish church of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, founded just a few years before by newly arrived French-speaking Catholics who had fled both the Haitian Revolution to the south and the French Revolution to the east. These refugees fled fearing for their lives and became the first Catholic citizens of Savannah. 
 
At this time in history, Catholic churches in the United States were not owned by the institutional church or diocese, but rather church property was owned directly by parishioners. Selected trustees owned and operated the property, and priests were present when available. When Father Le Mercier arrived to Savannah in 1803, the trustee Francis Roma invited him to celebrate Mass. After agreeing to do so, Roma faced an unfortunate dilemma. No one could find the keys to unlock the church. He wrote in protest in the parish registry, “on my waiting on several of the trustees whom I knew to have [the keys] in their possession, I found none of them at home.” Roma recorded that he was forced to break the window of the vestry and through it enter the church. Once the priest entered the sacristy, Roma’s embarrassment significantly increased when “we found none of the silver plates, nor brass candlesticks; we found that the albs, surplice, altar cloths, ornaments with valuable lace, had disappeared.” The priest would be unable to celebrate Mass.
 
Roma sent for the “washer woman” and she responded that these things had been in her possession until a certain Thomas Dolloghan, one of the trustees, had taken them home. When Roma realized that even the Bible was missing, he sent a John Shaw to fetch it from the house of Thomas Dollogahn. Thankfully, Roma records, Father Le Mercier “was kind enough to supply us with some of his own vestments… otherwise Divine Service could not have been performed.”
 
One month later, on March 19, 1803, Father Le Mercier inserted an entry into the parish registry recounting the conclusion of the unfortunate event. All items were returned by Thomas Dolloghan, treasurer of the church, through John Dillon. The annoyed priest records that Dolloghan had taken these things “to a purpose still unknown.” He closed the case stating that everything was in good order and in conformity with the original inventory made and signed by a Reverend Felix McCarthy.
 
I found this fascinating entry a few months ago while examining the original parish registry of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist which is kept in the archives of the Diocese of Savannah. Even though this event occurred over 200 years ago I immediately identified with it. It is a reminder that those who lived over 200 years ago dealt with the same issues we deal with today, be it at church or at home: Who took this? Where is that? Why did you not return this to its place? This incident is a concrete reminder that centuries may pass, but human nature remains the same. 
 
Father Pablo Migone is chancellor of the Diocese of Savannah and resides in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah.
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