Hostess City History: The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist

At 222 E Harris St. in Lafayette Square sits the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. Sizable and strikingly beautiful with spires reaching up toward the heavens, the Cathedral is a marvel of French Gothic architecture. It was originally erected in 1876 by American architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin. The congregation predates the Cathedral, dating back to the late 1700s when immigrants fleeing Haiti and France established the parish, which was Savannah’s first.

At the time of its construction, the Cathedral was the first building in Georgia that was made of brick. It featured 81 stained glass windows and 16 gargoyles. The Cathedral was dedicated by Most Reverend James Roosevelt Bayley, Archbishop of Baltimore, on April 30, 1876. The edifice was completed with the building of the spires in 1896. Two years later in February of 1898, a devastating fire consumed the Cathedral, destroying everything but the outside walls and spires. It was another 14 years before the reconstruction and redecoration were completed. 

The Cathedral was consecrated in 1920 and ongoing renovations took place over time, spanning several decades. In 1998, Most Reverend J. Kevin Boland called for a major restoration of the Cathedral, including the replacement of the slate roof. The restoration was completed in November of 2000, honoring the 150th anniversary of the diocese and the 100th anniversary of the rededication of the Cathedral. 

Most recently in 2020, Pope Francis issued a decree granting the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist the title of Minor Basilica, the first in the Diocese of Savannah. There are less than 100 churches nationwide that carry this designation. 

Today, the church serves its pious parishioners with daily and weekly Mass times. It is also open to the public for self-guided and docent-led tours. If you haven’t visited the Cathedral, find time to do so soon. Its rich history and beautiful design make it worth seeing for locals and tourists alike.