History of Our Church
Catholic presence on St. Simons Island goes back to the 1500’s and began as a missionary effort to the local indians.
By 1590, Franciscan Friars had established missions along the southeast coast of Georgia, including one at San Simeon, which the Guale Indians called Mission Asao. However, because of their steadfast belief in the Christian sanctity of marriage, these Franciscans were martyred and the mission destroyed by the Guales in 1597.
After centuries of meeting in private homes for worship, good news came to the Catholic community on St. Simons Island. Through the Catholic Church Extension Society in Brooklyn, New York, a woman had allocated $5,000 for a chapel to be built on the island with two conditions. First, the chapel must be named for her late husband William, and second, an architect would have to be hired for the design. The name was approved, and architect Cormac McGarvey volunteered his services for the project. Now all that was left to do was raise money to purchase the land on which the chapel was to be built.
A card party, held at the County Casino, was organized. With donations of door prizes, ice and cakes from local merchants, $125 was raised through the sale of tickets to the entire community, Catholics and Protestants alike. Fr. Peter McOscar, pastor of St. Francis Xavier in Brunswick, secured additional capital, and the first Frederica Road property was bought from Miss Bonnie Ross. The Faithful had persevered, and their efforts were rewarded when Bishop Michael J. Keyes officially opened the doors of St. William’s Chapel in December of 1929. The small chapel stood almost directly across the street from the site of the original mission some 300 years earlier.
Visitors continued to play an important and interesting part in the history of the chapel. Besides donations of many furnishings by generous non-local benefactors (including statues of the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph, Stations of the Cross and the confessional door), the chapel can claim celebrity status also. In the mid-1930’s, actress Irene Dunn was a member of one of our Confirmation Classes; vacationing opera star Giovanni Martinelli graced the parishioners with his beautiful voice; and Joe DiMaggio volunteered as an altar server in 1950.
With growth of the parish, the chapel was enlarged to seat 298, and in 1968 St. William acquired parish status and assumed Darien’s Nativity Chapel as its mission. It was at this time that the rectory and parish hall were built further south on Frederica Road, the present location. As the parish continued to grow, it was decided to build a larger church on the new property. Bishop Raymond W. Lessard dedicated the new St. William’s Church on September 14, 1986.
It is only fitting with such a storied legacy that, in 1992, St. William’s was chosen by the Diocese of Savannah to provide a permanent home for the Pilgrim Cross celebrating 500 years of evangelization in the Americas.
In 1996 the Parish Hall was remodeled and expanded to accommodate the increase in parish activities. It is presently made available to many organizations in the community at a modest fee. Stop by or call the office, 912-638-2647, for more information on using our facilities.
Who Was St. William?
William de Donjcon was born to an illustrious family of Nevers, France in the 12th century. Educated by his uncle Peter, Archdeacon of Soissons, William rejected the vanities of the world and devoted himself to exercises of piety and the acquisition of Knowledge.
The San Damiano Cross
The San Damiano Cross that hangs above our altar is a larger replica of the original that hangs in Santa Chiarra Church in Assisi, Italy.
Painted during the 12th century by an unknown artist in the Umbria district of Italy, the cross hung for many years in a rundown church in San Damiano. As St. Francis was passing by the church, he heard a voice, went inside and knelt to pray before the cross. He then heard the words, “Francis, repair My house.” St. Francis’ first effort was to repair the church buildings, but eventually he came to realize that God wanted him to build up the lives of His people. The cross is an icon cross – one that contains images of people who played a part in an event.. Therefore, it tells a story. The artist has represented Jesus as both wounded and strong – the crucified and the Risen Christ. There are five major witnesses. On the left are the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John, to whom Jesus gave his mother at the time of His death. Mary Magdalene, Mary, mother of James, and the centurion are on the right. Minor witnesses on the cross include soldiers and onlookers. The rooster represents the betrayal of Christ, and it is believed that the six figures at the bottom are the patron saints of Umbria. Six angels, three near each hand of Christ, wonder at the event of the crucifixion. At the top of the cross ten more angels are crowded around Christ, welcoming Him as He climbs from the tomb and enters into heaven. Christ is shown fully clothed and carries a cross as a scepter. At the top of the cross, we see the right hand of the Father raising Jesus from the dead and giving Him a blessing for all that He has done. The Latin inscription reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. The original San Damiano Cross was restored in 1938 and was placed for public viewing during Holy Week of 1957.