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Tuesday, July 19, 2011 - 1:46pm

New Catholic Bishop For South Georgia

The Vatican has named a new bishop for the Diocese of Savannah.

Pope Benedict XVI has elevated pastor Gregory Hartmeyer to be the incoming church leader for Catholics in 90 counties in South Georgia -- including Columbus, Macon and Augusta.

He currently serves a parish in Lithia Springs and, for 15 years before that, was pastor at a parish in Jonesboro, both near Atlanta.

As the 14th bishop of Savannah, he will oversee 55 parishes and speak for a population of 77,000 Catholics.

At a news conference in front of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Savannah, he referred to the whirlwind of activity that surrounded his papal election, which was a secret until Tuesday.

"The four hours of driving gives me some quiet time to reflect on what it means, what has happened in my life in the last two weeks and how it has completely changed my life, from being a pastor of a small parish to a bishop of a diocese," Hartmeyer said. "It's a transition that happened so quickly."

He will replace the retiring Bishop J. Kevin Boland, who as bishop spoke strongly against controversial immigration measures.

Hartmeyer said, it's Catholics' responsibility to make people from other countries feel welcome.

"We have an obligation to treat people with diginity," Hartmeyer said. "That is a right that is theirs."

The Catholic Conference of Georgia strongly opposed Georgia's new immigration law.

A federal judge has halted enforcement of a portion of the law that concerns many priests.

The provision would make it illegal to transport or harbor illegal immigrants.

Hartmeyer is only the second pastor from his religious order, Fransiscan Conventual, to become bishop in the US.

He says, his background might help the Diocese's case in pressing for sainthood for three 16th Century Georgia priests.

Many Catholics believe the priests were martyred while defending traditional marriage.

The priests opposed polygamous marriage among Native Americans and were killed at a Spanish mission settlement on St. Catherine's Island.

The Diocese of Savannah has petitioned the Vatican for their cannonization.

Hartmeyer is also two-thirds Irish, which will help him at Savannah's St. Patrick's Day festival, the nation's second-largest.

Speaking in his own thick Irish accent, the outgoing bishop, J. Kevin Boland, expressed sadness at leaving his position, which he held for 16 years, but expressed confidence Hartmeyer.

"It's been one of the most marvelous expreriences in my life," Boland says. "But there's new life, new blood. The new bishop is the same age as I was when I became bishop, so he can look forward to fifteen or sixteen years of great ministry."

Aside from his immigration stances, Boland also will be remembered for pushing for the $11 million renovation of Savannah's landmark Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.

Boland says, he intends to retire in Savannah.

Hartmeyer is considered Bishop-elect until his position becomes official in 60 days.

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