Flannery O’Connor remembered at historic Savannah church


Fifty years after famed writer and Savannah, Ga., native Flannery O’Connor died, a memorial mass was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the same church she attended as a child.

The Memorial Remembrance, which took place Sunday, was held in one of the South’s most spectacular houses of worship, a downtown Savannah church that O’Connor once viewed as a child from the window of her parents’ bedroom.

“In the great scheme of things 50 years is not a long period of time, however in the life of Flannery it takes on significant meaning,” said the Most Rev. J. Kevin Boland, bishop emeritus of Savannah, who led the Memorial Remembrance and delivered the homily. “Last year her prayer journal was published: What a beautiful treasure. Praying is the lifeblood of our relationship with the loving God.

“Fifty years after her death Flannery still speaks to us,” he added.

Mary Flannery O’Connor, born March 25, 1925, wrote two novels – Wise Blood and The Violent Bear it Away – and dozens of short stories before she died at age 39 of lupus.

She is said to have practically defined the genre known as Southern Gothic, a form that accentuates the grotesque, horrifying and, for lack of a better phrase, that which just isn’t right.

O’Connor’s writing was noted for its flawed characters and disturbing events, much of which was set in the South.

Her own mother is said to have asked her why she couldn’t just “write about nice people.”

O’Connor, who first gained a measure of fame at age 5 when she trained a pet chicken to walk backward, which caught the attention a newsreel company, moved to Milledgeville, Ga., in 1941 at age 15 after her father died of the same condition that would take her life 23 years later.

There, she lived with her mother and other relatives in an 1838 columned Federal clapboard house, which was not only the family home, but was briefly used as the governor’s mansion when Milledgeville served as the antebellum capital of Georgia.

After O’Connor graduated from today’s Georgia College & State University she enrolled in graduate school at today’s University of Iowa in 1945, with the goal of becoming a political cartoonist.

However, within a few weeks she had discovered the Iowa Writers Workshop, run by noted poet, playwright and novelist Paul Engle and switched to the school’s Master of Fine Arts program.

Discovering her vocation as a writer, she dropped ‘Mary’ from her name; had her first story, ‘The Geranium,’ published in Accent magazine, and received a Rinehart fellowship to work on a novel, according to The New York Times.

“In 1948, she moved on to spend nine months at the artists’ colony Yaddo, where she met the poet Robert Lowell; lived for six months, in 1949, in Manhattan, meeting her publisher Robert Giroux; boarded in Redding, Conn., with poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald, his wife Sally and their children, writing ‘Wise Blood,’” the publication added.

O’Connor first learned that she had lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease, in late 1950 when she developed a high fever while traveling home to Georgia.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Ga., where Flannery O'Connor attended mass as a child and the site of Sunday's Remembrance Memorial.

Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Savannah, Ga., where Flannery O’Connor attended mass as a child and the site of Sunday’s Memorial.

Over the next year she was in and out of hospitals in Milledgeville and Atlanta.

She recuperated at Andalusia, a 550-acre dairy farm outside Milledgeville run by her mother with the help of hired hands.

O’Connor died on Aug. 3, 1964, at the Baldwin State Hospital in Milledgeville.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was, in many respects, a fitting church for O’Connor to have grown up in.

It traces its history back to the late 18th century, when immigrants fleeing the monstrous turmoil in Haiti and France established Savannah’s first parish, the Congregation de Saint Jean-Baptiste.

The soaring, ornate French Gothic-style cathedral was dedicated in 1876, with four side altars of white Italian marble, although the twin spires weren’t completed until 1896.

Just two years later, a fire destroyed all but the outside walls and its spires. The first mass was celebrated in the rebuilt cathedral at the end of 1899 but it wasn’t until 1912 that extensive decoration and artwork in the interior were completed.

Stepping inside the massive cathedral, which has been restored to brilliant condition, is a moving experience, and one can understand how it helped buttress O’Connor’s faith in Roman Catholicism.

According to Marian Ryan of Slate, “O’Connor believed in Catholic doctrine with a confidence and surety that sustained her through battles with lupus, her own debilitating and finally fatal disease, as well as her daily routines: from early morning Mass to the writing desk and through her interchanges with extended family and the clans of peafowl strutting through the yard of her family estate. She was anchored in a way that the nonbeliever can never be. In many of her essays about being a Catholic writer, she wrote that her faith, rather than imposing limits, left her free to observe the ways of the world around her.”

It’s poignant that 50 years after O’Connor’s passing, the structure that shaped her life in so many ways remembered her with a special mass.

O’Connor, of course, wouldn’t have thought herself worthy, but others – many others – would disagree.

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