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"The Jewel of the South" — St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia

Rating: 24 votes, 4.96 average.
Enter St. Joseph, and you enter a beautiful sanctuary filled with light, music — courtesy of Organist/Director of Music Ms. Nelda Chapman — and incomparable art: the unmistakable, incredible, stained glass windows by Munich masters Mayer & Co.

An angel plays the harp and the Virgin cradles the newborn Child in The Nativity window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia. Another angel — Organist/Director of Music Ms. Nelda Chapman — fills St. Joseph, and our video, with divine music. Click the video arrow "play" button and be surrounded by the beauty of St. Joseph, "The Jewel of the South."

St. Joseph is filled with light flooding in from beautiful stained glass windows by Mayer & Co., Munich, Germany.
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It isn't easy leaving behind Savannah's cobblestone streets, azalea-filled boulevards shaded by a Spanish Moss-draped canopy, landmark mansions, historic forts, a quaint River Front, and the splendid 124-year-old Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist.

But Atlanta and a photo shoot beckon, so it's time to take I-16 West.

Where did almost three hours go? Is it time to fill up the tank already? I pull off at Exit 1B, cross the Ocmulgee River, and head towards Macon. I'm looking for a station, but what I see are two bell towers in the distance. I stay on Second Street, and a few blocks after a right turn on Poplar I park in front of St. Joseph Catholic Church.

About thirty white marble steps lead to three Gothic doors. White marble also adds a light decorative touch to dark-brick walls, door and window outlines, and crowns the steeples with white ribs (see video, top of page).

It's Sunday, about 4:45 p.m., but I find the front doors closed. It's a short walk around a side door, my camera bag wheeling behind me just in case I happen upon a Nativity. I open the door — and can't believe my eyes: St. Joseph is filled with light, streaming in from the tall windows that line the side walls, the apse of the altar, and the round ones situated high above Gothic arches.

These are not individual shafts of light, but a translucent illumination that transforms the church into a heavenly vision — and that touches the soul.

I instantly recognize the stained glass windows as Mayer and Company masterpieces. Even though I've encountered the Munich artists' work many times in my church pilgrimages, I'm always struck by their beauty and their deep, vibrant colors that seem to be lit from within.

This detail of The Last Supper shows the artistry of the Mayer Co. studio — St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia.
And the beauty of some of St. Joseph's stained glass windows — those in the apse and the transepts, for example — is the absence of a supporting center column, allowing for an uninterrupted canvas on which the Mayer and Company artists created their exquisite iconography (see detail of The Last Supper, at left).

The top of these windows are crowned by circular motifs featuring angels and symbols of the four Evangelists. And, higher still, circular windows feature Saint Catherine of Alexandria and St. Cecelia (see video, top of page), to mention just two of the saints in St. Joseph's beautiful gallery of stained glass.

Five O'clock Mass
Suddenly, the church reverberates with the sound of the organ. And where did all these people come from?

Here I am, in shirtsleeves, shorts, and sandals — it was 81 degrees in Savannah — standing on the aisle. I have been looking up, taking it all in, and don't realize that the church is full and the five o'clock Mass has begun.

I sit down and as quietly as possible unzip my camera case, take out my video camera, and set it on the pew. My intention is to record the beautiful organ music for my St. Joseph video, but there are lots of young parents in the congregation with young children, and the occasional baby cry fills the church. Then, too, there's that loud sound when people stand, then sit down. Clearly, I've got to find a different position for my video camera.

Ms. Nelda Chapman, Organist/Music Director, framed by St. Joseph's Rose Window.
I wonder if the choir loft might work? I quietly open a side door and begin to climb. It's no small feat holding my Canon, video camera, and carrying my camera case which is now seven pounds heavier with the addition of my brand-new 300mm telephoto lens.

Video recording or not, the climb is worth it, because the view from upstairs is magnificent: slender marble columns with gilded capitals support graceful arches decorated with gilded flower reliefs set in a deep blue background; smaller decorative arches edged in gold leaf adorn the base of windows; triangular pendentives are decorated with images of saints; reliefs of the Stations of the Cross set in Gothic frames are set between the nave windows; and side altars devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Mother (see photot, below left) frame the main altar whose Gothic Carrara marble altarpiece soars heavenwards and reaches an apse pierced by more stained glass windows (see photo, upper left).

That's when I see The Nativity, high up in the apse, between The Annunciation and Jesus Teaching at the Temple. But I can't really make out details — the choir loft is far way from the altar — but I'm sure my 300mm lens will capture even the tiniest detail of The Nativity window. But photography will have to wait the end of the service. Besides, I always like to ask for permission before shooting.

I'm surprised to see only the organist and a soloist in the loft — judging from the glorious sound that fills St. Joseph, I expected to see a full choir. St. Joseph's congregation is certainly blessed with gifted singers. And the priest's intonations, some in Latin, are no less melodious.

The organist's hands lift up from the keyboards, but the sound of the organ echoes for a while still. A flick of a switch and the organ is stilled. Then the organist rises to shake my hand. "Hello, I'm Nelda Chapman," she says with a smile. "Welcome to St. Joseph."

I introduce myself to Ms. Nelda, a soft-spoken woman in a black print dress and small hoop earrings, and St. Joseph's Organist/Director of Music. She tells me if I'm going to talk to Father Allan J. McDonald, St. Joseph's Pastor, I should do it now, because he's about to leave for Augusta.

"I'd like to talk to you as well," I say; "I'll be right back."

Father Allan J. McDonald, St. Joseph Pastor
I dash downstairs and find Father McDonald — who's been the Pastor at St. Joseph for six years — by the door, saying goodbye to his parishioners. After introducing myself I ask: what is it like celebrating Mass in such a beautiful setting?

Angels announce the Good News with harp and viol in this Mayer & Company, Munich, depiction of The Nativity, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia. (Click on the image above to see a much larger version.)

"It is a beautiful church," Father McDonald says. "Perfect for the celebration of the Mass. It's a very spiritual thing for me. St. Joseph is an overwhelming inspiration; it lifts your heart to God."

"And the people love their church. They don't grow tired of it, don't take it for granted. They realize what a blessing it is to have this church."

St. Joseph Parish — 1,500 families strong — came together, under Father McDonald's direction, for a much-needed church renovation: 'The church had disintegrated," says Father McDonald, "and needed a total refurbishment. All of the windows were taken out, and we re-plastered, repainted, re-guilded, re-decorated."

Father, what is it about St. Joseph that so lifts the spirit?

"There's a brightness that's part of this particular style of architecture, French Romanesque Revival, that you don't find in a lot of churches. And all these stained glass windows letting in a lot of light…"

Yes, Father, I instantly recognized them as Mayer windows, beautifully drawn with luminous iconography.

"They're Munich windows, that's right. Classic. Exquisite. It all comes together, it's not a hodge-podge, there's a unity to it, it all fits together."

Father, I know you have to go. Is there anything else you'd like to add about St. Joseph?

"Only that we call it the Jewel of the South in terms of church architecture, and we're just amazed that we have it here in Macon, Georgia."

Father, you can imagine my surprise: I got off the Interstate to get some gas, saw the spires on the hill, and drove right to it.

"We're glad you're here. Take all the pictures you want. God bless you."

With Father McDonald off to Augusta, I again cllimb the stairs to the choir loft where Ms. Nelda is waiting.

I'd love to feature your music to accompany my St. Joseph video, I say. Would it be alright if you play the prelude again?

Ms. Nelda is most agreeable, but asks me if it's OK if our recording session takes place after the organ lesson she'll be giving in a few minutes?

The Nativity
As Ms. Nelda's young pupil works on his pedal-work — low, deep, sounds fill the church, more felt, almost, than heard — I anchor my 300mm lens on the choir balcony ledge for stability, and start photographing The Nativity.

What amazing stained glass, what an amazing lens. The lens is so powerful, it fills the camera viewfinder with just The Nativity itself. The Mayer hallmark of fine art is everywhere in evidence.

First of all, consider the constraints of a tall, narrow window. But what could have been a limitation for the artist seems to be no problem at all in this masterful depiction of The Nativity (see image at left, or a much larger image): it is framed by marble pillars crowned with gold points frame the image, and support a decorative arched roof.

The Star of Bethlehem shines above, accompanied by other, smaller, gold stars.

On the right, wood columns and beams support the roof of the manger that's covered with straw. And on the left, a banana tree — setting the location — spreads it's wide leaves heavenward.

A shepherd, half hiding behind a column and accompanied by a young boy and another shepherd holding a lamb and a crook, peeks at the mystery unfolding below.

A veiled woman, arms crossed on her chest, approaches from the right.

St. Joseph, stands behind the Virgin, with a sunburst for a halo.

An old man — a shepherd? with flowing hair, beard, and sumptuous robes kneels in front of the Newborn Child resting on a manger of wheat stalks.

Surrounded by crenelated towers and deep reds and greens, an angel plays the viol — The Nativity window, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia.
An angel, with outstretched emerald wings serenades the Child with a golden lyre, while the Virgin tenderly embraces the Babe. The Virgin's halo — decorated with elaborate arches, stars, and jewels, is another instantly recognizable Mayer touch.

At the very bottom of The Nativity window is found a dedication, a testament of faith, really, of so long ago — St. Joseph was build in 1889 — Gift Of The Hornè Family.

Father McDonald most eloquently wrote about these faithful builders — and restorers — in Saint Joseph Catholic Church — A Living History (Indigo Custom Publishing, Macon, Georgia): Ms. Nelda gave me a copy, and I'm browsing through it as I await the end of her organ lesson: "St. Joseph Church" writes Father McDonald, "stands as a testimony to the sacrifice of time, talent, and treasure that these people of faith were willing to give 'to the greater glory of God' and in the development of their faith, hope, and love…

"In this building of bricks, mortar, glass, and artistic genius, something more is at work than the lavish display of ornate beauty and the skills of those who made this edifice into a landmark and a magnet for tourists. God's presence is in this holy place and in this holy place the human and the divine intersect in a mystical communion of love and life…

"It is in the confines of this majestic building, with steps and spires pointing heavenward, that people from all walks of life have been initiated into God's unconditional love and gifted with His Holy Spirit…"

Sacristan Gary Cooper
"Would you like me to turn on more lights?"

I put the book down. A man with a mustache, glasses, a white shirt, black pants, and a red-white-and-blue tie wants to make sure St. Joseph is all lit up for my photos.

I'll be right down, I motion with my hand, not wishing to disturb the organ lesson.

But first, I must also shoot The Annunciation from the choir loft, because, from below, its great height would distort the image.

Back downstairs, Gary Cooper says, "I've been a member of St. Joseph for seventeen years."

He looks up at the choir loft where Ms. Nelda and her pupil are still engaged with their lesson. "I love that pipe organ up there," he says. "It's fantastic. Very powerful. I was the former assistant organist, and miss playing it. Five years ago I had a heart attack, found myself doing too much, and I had to slow down. Now I'm the Five-o'clock Sacristan."

Gary, what is it like being in this beautiful church?

Sacristan, and former organist, Gary Cooper, says that being in St. Joseph is like being in heaven.
"Like being in heaven!" Gary says with a big smile. "As close to heaven as I get. The best time to come is in the afternoon, as you did today. It's beautiful. The stained glass windows always make the colors look so nice."

I've been walking up and down the aisles shooting for a while now, and wonder what does Gary think of when visitors like myself go crazy about all the sacred art?

"It takes other people to come here to make us appreciate what we have," Gary says. "When someone comes in from out of town, out of state, like you, it makes us appreciate what we have.

"On Sundays, or after weekday Mass, I will sit here all by myself and appreciate this beautiful church. I love the stained glass windows, they are all so beautiful. But The Apparition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? It's always been my favorite window. I will come in by myself, sit in a pew, the colors will come in so beautiful, I love it.

"And wasn't the Mass beautiful? Father McDonald is great, very articulate — and responsible for restoring this church — and our Catholic faith. It sure does something to you when you come into St. Joseph."

Low, quiet, organ sounds fill the church, like a distant wind whistling through trees. Gary looks up again. "And isn't Ms. Nelda Chapman a fantastic organist? Being in this church is like being in heaven. I'm pretty sure about that."

The marble Blessed Mother altar framed by a new painting of Angelic Host by Renate Rohn.
When I return to the organ loft the organ lesson is over. But before she starts playing Soul Adorn Thyself With Gladness by 17th century composer Johann Gottfried Walther, Ms. Nelda says, "This church was built from the plans used for the cathedral in Galveston that was destroyed in the 1906 hurricane. It was built by the Jesuits, who also built a church in Augusta, which is now Sacred Heart museum, and one in Tampa, which is also called Sacred Heart, and is still a functioning church."

I've just driven by Augusta, I say. I actually had called the Sacred Heart Cultural Center, but there was a flower show going on, and it would not have been the best time for me to take photos.

"Go back and see it," Ms Nelda says. "I believe the baptistry is still in the front of the church; the columns look like they're fluted metal, I don't think they're marble; the apse doesn't have as many windows; the staircase to the choir loft in Augusta is spiral — scary as all get out! And the Rose Window in the Augusta church is in one of the transepts.

She points to the St. Joseph Rose Window that is now lit by floodlight. "In the Center, you see the Jesuit motto, ADMG, Ad Majorem Dei Gloria, To the Greater Glory of God.

"When I came here in 1994, we didn't have a choir room at all. When the church was renovated for its Centennial in 2003, they built us a choir room on the second story of the right bell tower. We got displaced from the left tower, because of an elevator that was put there. I loved walking upstairs, it was glorious seeing — not just hearing — the bells. So I told the contractor, 'Go ahead and kick me out, but I want a skylight when you move me, so I can still see the bells.' I was just kidding, but they put it in!"

Ms. Nelda walks me over to the bell tower to show me her skylight. But it's getting late, the sun has set, and the light through it is now a deep violet.

Back at the organ console, she flips on a switch, and you feel a gentle rumble, the distant sound whooshing air. She sets a few organ stops, places her right hand on the first manual, her left on the upper, third, one, and, feet on the pedals, and St. Joseph once again fills with music.

When the last organ echo dies down, Gary yells from downstairs, "That was beautiful, Ms. Nelda!" He's still there, arms draped over a pew, enjoying the music.

Ms. Nelda reaches down with her right hand to turn off the organ.

That was about four minutes long, I say. Would you play one more piece for my video? Does she have a favorite piece?

"Whatever I play well, with not to many wrong notes," Ms. Nelda says, laughing, "and that suits the occasion. I have a dead pedal right now, but I will play for you a piece that does not have a pedal part; but it's a fine piece."

She opens a book titled Ten 18th Century English Voluntaries and begins to play with both hands on the lower manual. St. Joseph now echoes with the the sound of reeds and trumpets.

Then she starts playing paying the top manual with both hands, and the sound is transformed.

When the music stops, I look at my watch. It's past 9:30 p.m. I've been at St. Joseph for four-and-a-half hours!

"Alexis," Ms. Nelda says, you'll want to take a photo of the outside of the church before Gary turns off the lights; St. Joseph will be lit up like a Christmas tree." (See video.)

As I say goodbye I ask Ms. Nelda, who's been the Organist/Director at St. Joseph for fifteen years, what is it like playing in this beautiful church?

"One of God's greatest gifts," she says, quietly.

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Driving by Macon? You won't want to miss stopping by St. Joseph Catholic Church, 830 Poplar Street, Macon, GA 31201-2093. Until then, you'll enjoy visiting the St. Joseph website. Call ahead if you can (478) 745-1631) and find out when Ms. Nelda Chapman will be playing. I can't wait to get back myself — not just for the Mass and beautiful music, but to take a photo of Father McDonald, something that, in all the excitement, I forgot to do.

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Detail of the "Let the Children Come to Me" stained glass window, just one of the works of sacred art that fill St. Joseph Catholic Church, Macon, Georgia.

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