Recapture the joy of the holidays with a visit to one of these historic houses of worship. You'll be welcomed with open arms.
by Cassandra M. Vanhooser

They sound like angels. On this bright December morning, young people stand in front of the altar at Christ Church (Episcopal) in Savannah and lift their voices to God.

This joyful noise is so touching, so sweetly haunting it's as if the Lord has momentarily drawn aside an invisible veil and allowed me a glimpse of heaven. Such are the blessings of the holiday season in Savannah.

In this most hospitable city, many of the historic churches and synagogues welcome visitors with open arms year-round. They feel compelled to share their history, their architecture, their deep and abiding faith. Yet, during this season of celebration, these places of worship overflow with activity and anticipation.

In many ways, the congregations lining the squares in Savannah define the city, and this is no accident. The colony's first church service was held in Gen. James Oglethorpe's tent the day after he arrived on Yamacraw Bluff in 1733 with the first group of settlers. Christ Church stands today on that exact spot.

"When General Oglethorpe laid out the squares, there were two lots on the east and two lots on the west of every square," explains Mark C. McDonald, executive director of the Historic Savannah Foundation. "Those lots were reserved for public places such as churches that were necessary for the benefit of the colony."

Though the city started with four squares, more were added as the colony grew. Some 21 of the original 24 squares remain intact today. Many still have churches on their east and west sides.

The Mother Church of Georgia
Christ Church, which overlooks Johnson Square, awes with magnificent white columns that give this Greek Revival-style building the feel of a classical temple. The floors are heart pine, and a long center aisle leads to the spectacular stained-glass window depicting Christ's ascension. On Sunday mornings, a 1,900-pound bell, forged in 1819 in Boston by Paul Revere and Son, joyfully calls parishioners to service.

Christ Church has survived hurricanes and fires, floods and pestilence. Still, it stands today as a testament to the faith and perseverance of the congregants and the people of Savannah.

"So many of the downtown churches in America have the beauty, but the large congregations are mostly gone," observes music director Mark K. Williams. "The people have left. They raised generations there, then they moved to the suburbs. But I walked into Christ Church, and here was this historic downtown church full of people. The spirit of God is very alive here."

Out of the Bonds of Slavery
The sanctuary at First African Baptist Church is a thing of beauty. Light streams in through the stained-glass windows behind the pulpit, highlighting the faces of the former pastors who shepherded this flock. The pews in the balcony bear the tribal markings of the slaves who carved them.

Still, it's the basement floor, full of equally spaced holes hand-drilled in a geometric pattern, that best illustrates the awe-inspiring journey this congregation has made. "There's the floor that you actually walk on," says Pastor Thurmond N. Tillman, "but there's another finished floor just 41?2 feet under that one. That's about the space needed for a person to crawl on his hands and knees."

Visitors can't see the second floor or the underground tunnels leading to and from the church. Neither could the slave hunters who regularly searched here for runaways. They assumed the holes in the floor were a form of African art. In reality, they were designed to offer fresh air and directions to slaves headed for freedom on the Underground Railroad.

"I'm still grasping what it means to be the pastor of the oldest black church in America," says Pastor Tillman. "Our history lets us know that we are really obligated to do more than just sit here with all this rich history. We're called to do something that is going to make a difference."

The congregation is currently undertaking a massive renovation, which will include new facilities for visitors, uncovering the Savannah gray brick walls outside the sanctuary, and replacing the steeple that was blown off by a hurricane in 1892. This is in addition to the services the congregation provides for those who need food, shelter, and employment. When thinking of the challenges that lie ahead, PastorTillman recalls the slaves who built the church.

"In 1859 when construction began on this church, one of the ways that you could get out of slavery was to purchase your freedom," he explains. "But instead of purchasing the freedom of their children or their grandchildren, their husbands or wives, they built a sanctuary to God.

"After working all day in the fields, they came at night by lantern, by moonlight, by torches, or whatever they had," Pastor Tillman recounts. "The building was dedicated in 1861. Just two years later--not 200 years or 2,000 years--Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I don't think that was just a coincidence."

 
The Jewel of Savannah
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is not the oldest in Savannah. Still, this Gothic Revival cathedral may be the most beautiful and ornate of all the churches. Outside, twin spires stretch toward heaven, dominating the Savannah skyline. Inside, pastel beauty reigns. Mauve and robin's-egg blue grace the walls, along with massive, colorful murals.

Marble covers the aisles, while the floors beneath the polished oak pews are made of heart pine. There are stunning stained-glass windows crafted in Austria, while the majestic rose window above the entrance depicts St. Cecilia, patroness of music.

Though its beauty truly needs no adornment, the Cathedral offers the city's most stunning display of Christmas decorations. But don't expect to experience the full effect before Christmas Eve.

"Here at the Cathedral, we try to adhere to the season of Advent," explains Brother Robert Sokolowski, who creates the church's fabulous floral displays. "We start the actual celebration of Christmas at Midnight Mass and go for 12 days."

Over the years, members and visitors alike have come to love Brother Robert's European-style Nativity scene. The collection now fills the right chapel of the church. He adds something new each year. When people leave gifts for the baby Jesus, he simply incorporates the presents into his design.

The seasonal display seems to grow each year, yet Brother Robert has no trouble finding inspiration.

"All I can say is it's a gift from God," he modestly admits. "I've always said I consider the Cathedral to be my pulpit."

The Hope of Israel
If not for the Star of David over the front door, you might think the neo-Gothic temple that houses Congregation Mickve Israel was a Catholic or Episcopalian cathedral. Yet, as darkness settles on the city this eighth day of Hanukkah and members come together to celebrate, there's no mistaking that this is a synagogue.

Friends and families gather in the fellowship hall, their menorahs gracing the tables in front of them. "Every day we light an additional candle," says Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer. "Now, on the last night of Hanukkah, we light eight candles plus the shammes. It's a night filled with light, a night of great celebration."

Amid singing and laughter, the rabbi takes the shammes, the highest of the nine candles in his family menorah, and lights it. He moves from table to table until all have burning candles. As each family lights its own menorah, the darkened room begins to glow.

"Hanukkah is considered a minor celebration because it is not mentioned in the Bible, but Hanukkah and Passover are the two most celebrated holidays in the American Jewish community," Rabbi Belzer explains. "In our family, it's eight crazy nights. We're all getting together someplace or another doing some hoop-de-dah for eight nights. That's pretty amazing. My granddaughters get one present each night--we all do--so the house is filled with gifts."

"Savannah Rings in the Season" is from the December 2003 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.