This fall marked a milestone for the Catholic community in Statesboro and Bulloch County — St. Matthew Catholic Church celebrated its 75th anniversary by taking a look back at its history.
On Oct. 21, 1944, Gerald P. O’Hara, Catholic bishop of Savannah/Atlanta-established St. Matthew Catholic parish. However, the roots of a Catholic community were established in 1930 when two Italian families, the Strozzos and DeNittos, moved from Jamestown, New York to a small farm east of Brooklet.
By the middle of that decade, priests from the Cathedral in Savannah were visiting these Catholics on the second Sunday of the month to conduct Mass in their homes. During World War II, a larger Catholic presence came to the county. There was an Army-Air Force training facility and a German-Italian prisoner-of-war camp located in Statesboro. Bishop O’Hara assigned Dr. Daniel McCarthy of Port Wentworth to make visits to Bulloch in August 1943.
Later, Father James Doherty in the spring of 1944 reported that there were a hundred German Catholic prisoners, plus a few Catholic adults and some students at what was then called Georgia Teachers College.
In a letter dated Sept. 29, 1944, Bishop O’Hara asked the Glenmary Home Missionary Society to staff a Catholic parish in Statesboro. The Glenmarys were founded in 1939 to place clergy where there were Catholics but no priests. In October of that year, Father Edward Smith, Father Earl McGrath, and Glenmary Brother Vincent Wilmes arrived in Statesboro. They rented a small house on South Main Street. Apparently, they had more visitors through the chimney than the front door; indeed, once a large black snake came slithering out from the fireplace. The six-room house was infested with the three R’s: rodents, reptiles, and roaches. The home burned down in 1946 due to a furnace fire with, fortunately, no harm to the clergy.
In 1947, they purchased a property at Highway 80 and Savannah Avenue. The building had been a liquor store, but the county voted dry and the owner sold the building to the Catholics.
Through prayer and faith, the parish found the will, the funds, and enough volunteers talented in construction to erect a sanctuary.
A red brick Spanish Gothic church was built and later dedicated by Auxiliary Bishop Francis Hyland on Feb. 15, 1950. This small building served as the center of Catholic worship over the next 36 years.
The Glenmary religious society, priests, brothers and sisters staffed the parish for 23 years. The size of the parish grew dramatically in 1956 when the Rockwell Manufacturing Company from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania relocated to Statesboro. This move doubled the church numbers. From 1956-67, the parish had four pastors, eight assistant priests and five Glenmary brothers. Glenmary sisters also worked in the parish and the greater community. In 1956, Atlanta became its own archdiocese. The Diocese of Savannah now covered 88 counties in southern Georgia. After 1967, the Savannah Diocese provided the pastors for its churches.
One of the most important diocesan pastors was Father Lawrence Lucree, who came to St. Matthew’s in 1976, where he served for a dozen years. A priest of action and ability, he loved pomp and ceremony and loved to celebrate Catholic feasts. Soon after he arrived, Area Christians Together in Service (ACTS), an ecumenical outreach, was formed to help the poor. It is still in operation.
Lucree greatly loved animals and usually housed many strays in the rectory. His concern for animals was so great that he helped found the Statesboro Humane Society in the early 1980s He taught Latin and German courses at Bulloch Academy and founded the Joseph Home for Boys in 1983, a group home which lasted 30 years.
Yet his most important achievement was purchasing property on Gentilly Road just a quarter mile from the Georgia Southern College. On Dec. 15, 1985 a groundbreaking ceremony began for the work on a new multi-purpose parish center bordered by Gentilly Road and John Paul Avenue. On Nov. 23, 1986 the first Mass was held in the new parish center, which contained classrooms, a kitchen and areas for offices. An adjacent rectory was built on the property. Sunday Mass was celebrated in the parish hall over the next decade. In 1988, Father Lucree was named the Rotary Man of the Year, recognizing his contributions in the Statesboro-Bulloch community.
Father Michael H. Smith succeeded Lucree as pastor for the next nine years. Smith was a soft-spoken person who sought to guide the parish through consensus in decision making. In 1991 and 1993, two men who grew up in Statesboro were ordained to the priesthood: Father Brett A. Brannen and Robert A. Girardeau. Tragically, this latter priest died of a heart attack on March 21, 2011, following 17 years of service to the diocese.
Smith sold the property on Highway 80 and Savannah Avenue in 1990 and this enabled the parish to construct the present church. This sanctuary was finished and dedicated by Bishop J. Kevin Boland on Nov. 21, 1996. The next year, the parish received a new pastor.
For the past 22 years St. Matthew’s has had five pastors. Father David Stachurski, O.F.M. Conventual was the pastor for nine years after 1997. Father David, as he was called, proved to be a gifted singer, musician and liturgist. An adept administrator, he added parking spaces and landscaped the grounds while paying off the church debt. Due to the growing Hispanic populations, he added a Spanish-speaking Mass on Saturday afternoons in 2002.
Since Father David had paid off the church’s debt, his successor, Father Timothy P. McKeown made some additions on the church during his five years as pastor, 2006-11. A cry room and bathroom were constructed adjacent to the church. The narthex closed with glass to allow for additional pews. While subsequent pastors have made some needed repairs to the church, there have been no more structural additions.
Since 2011, Father Brett Brannen and Father Douglas Clark have served as pastors. In 2010 the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) has come to serve in needs of Catholic students at Georgia Southern University, extending an outreach begun by the Glenmary Missioners.
The parish maintains a strong outreach to those in need with ACTS and Worn Threads, a thrift store. In 2017, the church purchased an ultrasound machine for Choices of the Heart, a local crisis pregnancy center. The parish supports many ministries as well as vibrant men’s and women’s service groups: The Knights of Columbus for men and the Parish Council of Catholic Women (PCCW) for women. For 20 years, the parish has sponsored a giving tree at Christmas to bring gifts to needy children along with the Box of Hope for children abroad.
In 1976 there were less than 500 members; there are now about 1,500 active parishioners. In 2019, St. Matthew welcomed a new pastor, Father John Johnson. Outreach and ecumenical interactions have made St. Matthew an integral part of the fabric of Statesboro and Bulloch County.