From the 'Diocese of Savannah' and back again

Originally Appeared in : 9808-4/12/18

Change is inevitable, even in the naming of a diocese. Like a child — evolving from infancy to maturity — who picks up nick-names along the way, the Catholic Diocese of Savannah has experienced its own name changes. Earlier, part of the Charleston Diocese, the Catholic Diocese of Savannah first stood officially on its own two feet in 1850. A bastion of Catholicity, it would hold onto both its premier position and its original name until the mid-1930s when new Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara recognized the potential of that up-and-coming city in Fulton County named Atlanta. 


Pulling out of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Atlanta had begun to attract new businesses and residents to Georgia like Savannah’s climate drew sand flies. By 1937, the Southern Cross, the diocesan newspaper, bore a tantalizing headline: “Diocese of Savannah is now the See of Savannah-Atlanta.” Now the Catholic Church was truly experiencing growing pains with an unprecedented growth in northern parts of the state. A headlined article (“Consistorial Congregation’s decree proclaiming the new Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta”) in the Bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association explained what was happening and changes that should take place because of this growth: 


“Within the limits of the Diocese of Savannah, the city of Atlanta is outstanding both for the number of its inhabitants and, especially, for its commercial activity, so that it has become the capital of the entire state of Georgia. Wherefore, the Bishop of Savannah, in order to provide more easily for the propagation of religion, has petitioned the Apostolic See that he might be allowed to reside some part of the year in the same city of Atlanta, and likewise that the Church of Christ the King which is to be erected might be adorned with the honorary title of a co-cathedral; and that he might perform the sacred functions of Holy Week in the same church in alternate years and that in the future the Diocese of Savannah might be called the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta.” 


Inevitably, with more growth, the Church began to require more room. In a sense, it needed to expand in a way that would benefit its members. By early 1956, the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta, required organizational surgery and separation of the northern and southern sectors had become necessary. Over 2,000 people had greeted Bishop Gerald P. O’Hara on his arrival in Atlanta in 1936, verification if there were any doubt about the way the Church was growing there. 


Twenty years later, on November 8, 1956, north Georgia officially became a separate entity, the Diocese of Atlanta. Once again, South Georgia would comprise the Diocese of Savannah. At this time, the Diocese of Atlanta covered 26,000 square miles and had a Catholic membership of 23,600. Francis E. Hyland, formerly Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah, became the Atlanta Diocese’s first bishop, serving in that post until his resignation in 1961.


One year later, the Diocese of Atlanta was designated an archdiocese. At this time, in 1962, the number of Catholics in the new archdiocese had grown to 32,000. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Savannah, still a mission diocese in South Georgia, presently includes 90 counties of the southeastern part of the state. The total number of Catholics in this area is currently 73, 649. First affiliated with the Diocese of Baltimore and, afterwards with the Diocese of Charleston, and becoming the Diocese of Savannah in 1850 and the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta from 1936 to 1956, this area has managed to keep its original identity. Although much has changed, it has retained the name it began with in 1850: the Catholic Diocese of Savannah. 


Columnist Rita H. Delorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives.

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