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Mercer University returned an ancient chalice to a representative of Baptists in the Republic of Georgia during a special Eucharist service on Thursday, Nov. 3. Since the first Baptist church in all of what was then Russia was established in Tbilisi in 1868, the chalice holds particular significance to the Baptists in both countries, and it had been lost to history for more than 65 years until a series of fortuitous – and some say miraculous – events surfaced the chalice on Mercer’s Macon campus.
President William D. Underwood presented the chalice to Baptist Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili from Tbilisi at the service in Newton Chapel. Songulashvili traveled to the U.S. to participate in the service and accept the chalice, a gift from the University to Baptists in the Republic of Georgia. The Mercer Singers performed and Bishop Songulashvili presented a framed life-sized photograph of the chalice to President Underwood to commemorate the occasion.
The gold chalice was presented 65 years ago to the late Louie D. Newton, the chapel’s namesake and longtime pastor of Druid Hills Baptist Church in Atlanta, by the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Moscow during Dr. Newton’s 1946 trip to Russia. The chalice, considered an heirloom by Baptists in the Republic of Georgia, was discovered last year in a room in Newton Hall by Tarver Library’s Susan Broome.
Songulashvili and Broome became friends several years before the chalice mystery began to unravel when she and her husband, Frank, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, were introduced at a conference simply because they all hailed from “Georgia.” Broome is a librarian and former archivist at Tarver, and several years after they met, Songulashvili began doing research into the history of Baptists in his country for his Ph.D. dissertation at Oxford University. He found references to a month-long visit to Russia by a prominent Baptist preacher from America and asked several Baptist archivists about holdings related specifically to this trip. Broome reported that Mercer held Newton’s diary from the trip and offered to transcribe it. In retrieving additional materials from Druid Hills Baptist Church, she and the archbishop came across references and photographs of a chalice. Unfortunately, neither she nor the other archivists knew the whereabouts of this vessel.
Then, an archivist in the library at Mercer mentioned that she had heard the word chalice used in an interview she was cataloging for the archives. At the time she did not realize that the interview was between then-University President R. Kirby Godsey and Newton, but she knew that it was an unusual word to use unless the interviewee had seen one.
One night, inspiration struck Broome, she said, when she envisioned a small area that she had never entered in the back of Newton Chapel. When she went to investigate the next day, she opened the door to the room – a forgotten archival room within the chapel – and found the chalice as the centerpiece of the Newton display, dedicated in 1983. The chalice, which was labeled Russian because Newton had received it in Moscow, was reported to have been moved from Tbilisi to Moscow in 1928, and then to the United States in 1946, and no one now living in the Republic of Georgia knew of its existence.
“It really is a miraculous set of circumstances,” Broome said. “There is so much of this story that should never have happened.”
Because the archbishop had been invited to speak at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia, and since he needed to do further research among Dr. Newton’s papers and photographs, Songulashvili returned to Macon in November 2010. At the meeting Susan Broome relayed the story of the chalice, and CBF/GA presented the archbishop with a framed photograph of the chalice to take back with him to Georgia. President Underwood happened to be in the congregation for the meeting and approached Songulashvili with a proposition: “He said, ’I’ll exchange that picture for the chalice,”’ Frank Broome recalls. From there, details were worked out for the exchange, and the chalice was formally presented in chapel last year, though it could not be taken back to the Republic of Georgia at that time. Now that the archbishop is completing his dissertation and planning a return home, a special carrying case has been made for the chalice and the appropriate paperwork has been prepared to ensure its safe travel back to Tbilisi. All of those items will be presented to Songulashvili on Thursday night.
“This was so very important to Malkhaz,” Susan Broome said. “The chalice has a lot of significance for the Evangelical Baptist Church, which is a persecuted minority in his country. He knows that the martyrs of his church used it in celebrating Eucharist in times past.”
Broome said that the archbishop believes it likely that the pastor who presented it to Newton in 1946 only did so under pressure from the government of Dictator Joseph Stalin. That might have been fortuitous in and of itself, Broome said, because it was already lost to Georgian Baptists and might not have survived in the turmoil of the USSR. But now the precious artifact will be returned to the Republic of Georgia where it belongs.