The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Mother Church of the Savannah Diocese, is located on Lafayette Square in the Historic District of downtown Savannah. Also on Lafayette Square are the Andrew Low House, Flannery O'Connor House, Hamilton-Turner House and the Battersby-Hartridge-Anderson House. The Cathedral is in the center of the Historic District and is within walking distance of almost all downtown attractions. It is accessible from Interstate 16. CAT, Savannah's public transit system, has a free downtown shuttle that stops at the Cathedral.
The first Catholic parish was established in Savannah in the late 18th century, and the first church called St. John the Baptist, a small wooden building, was built in 1800. Until 1850, Savannah, and all of Georgia, was part of the Charleston Diocese. In 1850, the Savannah Diocese was created, covering the entire state of Georgia and most of Florida. In the meantime, the congregation had continued to grow, and St. John the Baptist now had a brick church that seated 1,000 parishioners. This church became the Cathedral in 1850. By 1870, the diocese, now covering just the state of Georgia, had 20,000 people, and plans for a new Cathedral were made. Construction on the new Cathedral, to be located on Lafayette Square, began in 1873.
The building, which was constructed of brick in the French Gothic style, served the parish until 1898, when the Cathedral caught fire and was almost completely burned. Reconstruction started almost immediately, and the Cathedral was rebuilt from the same plans, using the design by architect Francis Baldwin, who created many buildings throughout his career for the Catholic Church. The Cathedral was finished in 1900. The building has two spires, pointed arches and a large rose window, all characteristics of French Gothic. The interior has murals painted in New York in the renaissance style. The stained glass was created by Tyrolean artists in Austria. The main altar and the four side altars are made of Italian white marble. The exterior is brick that is stuccoed and whitewashed.
The Cathedral was closed for 18 months between the spring of 1999 and the fall of 2000 for a major restoration to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the diocese and the 100th anniversary of the current building. Every surface was cleaned, and paintings and sculptures were restored to their original condition. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said of the work, "The newly restored Cathedral of St. John the Baptist ... is a symphony of color and light and space, played out in stone and glass. The holy harmony within the neo-Gothic spires is a source of inspiration for those seeking artistic or architectural excellence, or simply a place to offer a quiet prayer.''
The Cathedral is one of the most popular attractions in Savannah. Reviews on travel websites use words like "must-see,'' "breathtaking,'' and "amazing.'' There are no negative reviews. One visitor said, "The beauty of the interior is unmatched in my experience. ... Just flat spectacular.'' Several travelers suggest visiting while the organ is playing to enhance the visual experience. This person perhaps does not exaggerate by saying, "This is definitely the best attraction in Savannah.''
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