History of Our Lady Star of the Sea

      In 1840 at Saint Marys, a small coastal village at the mouth of Saint Marys River, the Diocese of Savannah established the parish of Our Lady Star of the Sea, the sixth parish parish founded in Georgia. It was a prosperous period for the town, and apparently, for the parish. In his book, The Church in South Georgia, Father William V. Coleman describes the Saint Marys parish as having “the first resident pastor (1840) and one of the earliest churches (1842).” In fact, church records point to Saint Marys as the center of the coastal missions for two generations beginning around 1840.

     The French Catholics who landed on the Georgia coast in the early 1800s had found a land that was only a river’s crossing from the Spanish in Florida to the South, but without any Catholics. British law had forbidden the practice of the Catholic religion to fortify the English presence in the colonies. The busy center of the catholic coastal missions of the 1840s evolved, therefore, from these migrating French, who became the bedrock of the Catholic congregation in Saint Marys.

     The small congregation, not yet an official parish, but nevertheless dedicated and with trustees, was deeded a large parcel of land on Dillingham Street by the city of Saint Marys in 1826, although it would be more than 130 years before a church would be built there. One trustee was James Vocelle, an Acadian (from Nova Scotia, Canada). His family and others met in their homes and stores, and were meeting upstairs over a grocery later in 1840s when another of the group, Marie Ponce DuFour, bought the little church for the Catholics. Later in the post-Civil War recovery, Our Lady Star of The Sea Parish was placed in the care of Marist missionaries from Saint Francis Xavier Parish in Brunswick and remained their mission for many years. According to Marist records, James Vocelle’s daughter, Hortense Vocelle, administered the affairs of the parish during the quiet postwar period and continued into the early 1900s. Mass at Saint Marys was celebrated once a month, for the most part, until 1953, when the mission priests began offering weekly Masses. Father John Mercer began the weekly schedule, followed by Father William Collins, Father Meiluta and Father William Kelly, among others. After a new church was built in 1958 on the Dillingham Street property, the parish was assigned its first resident priest, Father Stephen Mayer, who also administered Saint Francis of Assisi Mission, assumed the interim pastorate of the Saint Marys parish

     Father William P. Dowling was named pastor to fill the vacancy left by Father Mayer’s death. During his pastorate, the parish built a social hall addition to the church, with classrooms and a rectory apartment, and added paved parking with sidewalks and landscaping. When Father Dowling retired in 1985, Father Francis Barry became pastor, followed by Father William Leahy in 1987. Since Father Leahy’s arrival, the parish has built a separate rectory and converted the pastor’s former apartment into CCD classrooms.

     When the King’s Bay Base doubled the county’s population in the early 1980s, naturally the small congregation of Our Lady Star of the Sea also increased.

     In 2001 Our Lady Star of the Sea got a new Pastor Fr. Gabriel Cummings, during his 12 years pastorate the new Religious Education Building was build as well as a New Church, that was dedicated on April 16, 2010.

     Today, approximately 410 families are registered in the parish, and their members fill the church and CCD classrooms each week. The Knights of Columbus and The Ladies Auxiliary organizations serve the parish with sponsorship and college scholarship funding and many other acts of service. “Good Samaritan” Food Pantry distributes bags of food daily.

     The original Chapel began as a bank in 1840; however, the bank failed after seven years.  Mrs. Marie Ponce Dufour and her husband Lewis purchased the Chapel for their church, as they had no formal place of worship. A bell tower was added to the building and the Chapel was utilized until 1957 when a new, much larger church was built on Dillingham Street.

     The original church of the 1840s became neglected and fell into disrepair after 1957.  

The bell tower became unsafe and had to be removed. 

     Several years ago, a group of ladies from Our lady Star of the Sea formed a Chapel Guild.  After many rummage sales, raffles bake sales, donations, weddings and countless other fundraising ventures, the Guild hired an attorney to clear the title to the property, which is now owned by the Diocese of Savannah.

     The Chapel is open for Mass on First Friday, weddings, baptisms, renewal of vows and for tours. The little white building with the bell tower on the corner of Bryant and Osborne Streets, stands as a constant reminder of the small band inspired long ago to nurture their faith on the banks of the Saint Marys River.