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Savannah Historic District

Date of Visit


United States


Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist



Dating back to a church built in 1779, the present building of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Savannah was the first building in Georgia to be constructed of brick and was dedicated in 1876, although it underwent a major renovation following a fire in 1898, which destroyed much of the building and its interior. Having undergone a number of renovation projects its interior now has a light bright appearance and displays many beautiful pieces of art and church architecture. 


The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist developed from a church first constructed on Liberty Square in 1779. In 1811, a new site was chosen on Drayton and Perry Streets to enable a larger building to be constructed, with the new church being consecrated April 1, 1839.

Construction began on the new Cathedral in 1873,  with the dedication taking place April 30, 1876.  Constructed as a Neo-Gothic design it was the first building in Georgia to be constructed of brick. Originally, it was built without any spires, but these were added in 1896, and reach the height of 214 feet. The height of the roof being 96 feet. It was also at this time when the cathedral received a coating of stucco and whitewash. 

On February 6, 1898, the building was swept by fire, which left only the walls and towers, and although it was rebuilt by the following year the interior decoration was not completed for a further 13 years. A number of additional renovation projects were undertaken over the years and in 1959–1965, heating, cooling and lighting systems were incorporated, which was followed by updating the decoration.

In 1984–1985, work was needed to reinforce the structural foundations  following movement of the steeples and spires. This required the existing timber foundations to be  replaced with reinforced concrete. 
In 1998, the Cathedral underwent  $12 million of renovation work on essential repairs to the structure, including the roof and steeples. In  2013, it became  necessary to stabilise and renovate the steeples again, due to cracks in the bricks and mortar. In addition, the  stucco dating from 1900 was refurbished and replaced. Work was also required internally on the murals.

In 2003, a fire caused by an arsonist resulted in major smoke damage to the interior of the Cathedral, which required extensive cleaning of the murals, walls, surfaces and the installation of a new pulpit and altar rail. 

On entry to the cathedral, a visitor is struck by the light and airiness of the interior.  


Immediately in front of the doorway is the octagon shaped baptismal font which weighs 8,000 pounds. This was carved in Carrara marble in Italy and shipped to Savannah in 2000 to become the latest of a number of fonts used since the cathedral opened in its present location. 


The side panels are identical to those found in the old high altar (now the reredos, which is the ornamental screen covering the wall at the back of the altar). 

Along the side of the nave hanging on the north and south walls are the Stations of the Cross.  Set at eye-level, these are wood carvings from Bavaria, framed by  American woodwork. The Stations of the Cross are a series of images/carvings depicting Christ on the day of his crucifixion. These were installed in 1900 for the re-opening of the Cathedral after the fire of 1898, and were painted in full colour, in 1963 they were reduced down to their natural wood, giving them a marbleised effect, although in 2000 the statues were re-coloured to give them their original appearance. 


These are interspaced with some of the 81 stained glass windows which were installed around 1904.  In the south transept the window depicts the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. While the window in the north transept shows Christ Ascension into heaven.


At the far end of the nave, in the centre, is the Main Altar.


Weighing 9,000 pounds the altar was carved out of Carrara marble in Italy and shipped to Savannah.

This was paid for from donations from the priests and Bishop of the Diocese of Savannah. The panels are identical to the old high altar and the baptismal font, while the reredos is made from the previous baptismal font.


On the right of the altar  is the Blessed Virgin Mary Chapel. This contains one of the three windows that survived the fire of 1898.


On the far right in the transept is the crucifix. This once stood next to the pulpit but was removed for several decades. It has now been completely restored and given a permanent place on what was once the altar of Saint Anthony.


Moving to the left, in front of the apse,  is the Cathedral’s pulpit, this is a replica of one destroyed by an arsonist on October 7, 2003. The carvings are based on a vision of Ezekiel, the Old Testament prophet, in which he saw four creatures who would attest to the holiness of God. 


The presence of the bishop’s chair in the apse confirms the building as a Cathedral. The chair was installed after the fire of 1898. Details on the chair include carvings of the bishop’s mitre and staff at the centre of the back of the chair. Arches carved in the back and sides reflect the Gothic design of the Cathedral. The church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica in 2020 by Pope Francis.

The chapel on the left of the altar is the Sacred Heart Chapel which contains the Altar of Reservation, which contains the tabernacle, where the Blessed Sacrament is kept. 


On the left of the Sacred Heart Chapel is The Ambry which stands in the east corner of the Cathedral’s north transept. Originally, the carved marble sections were tabernacles on the side altars. These were altered during  renovations that took place in 2000.  The Ambry is used to store vessels containing Holy Oils, which is used for such things, as consecrating altars, for ordination to the priesthood, and during Confirmation.

The Cathedral contains 34 detailed murals. These are painted in oil on canvas and are different from  frescoes, which are painted on fresh wet plaster. These murals are installed in a similar way to that used to put up wallpaper.

Two of the largest and most notable are the 16 x 18 ft mural depicting the Feast of Pentecost. This is on the east wall of the south transept, to the right of the altar, while on the east wall of the north transept, to the left of the altar, is the colossal Sermon on the Mount mural.


Located above the main entrance is the organ. This is made in Georgetown, Massachusetts, and installed in 1987. Built of solid white oak, with the console trim in black walnut,  it has 34 ranks and 2,308 pipes. 


Above the organ is the Rose Window displayed as a Gothic medallion, it is a quatrefoil, with St. Cecilia, the patroness of music in the centre. Ten radiations from the centre contain celestial figures singing and performing on musical instruments.

The whole interior has a light, bright appearance and displays many beautiful pieces of art and church architecture.



              All  Photographs were taken by and are copyright of Ron Gatepain

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