The congregation of St. Mary’s
n 1788 pioneering Catholics formed the first parish in
the Carolinas and Georgia
By FATHER SCOTT J.A. BUCHANAN
November: To give thanks with the communion of saints for the new creation in Christ
In the month of November, Catholics traditionally focus on two liturgical feasts which, although they do not seem closely related, are, in fact, directed to the same end. We begin the month with the Feast of All Saints in which we recognize the important role that the saints play in our faith: how they are not only models of Christian living, but also active in our daily lives through their prayers for us. The following day we celebrate the Feast of All Souls in which we offer our prayers for the dead. Both feasts focus on the relationship between various aspects of the one Catholic Church. In the Feast of All Saints we look to the church triumphant — the church which has already reached its goal and is in heaven. In the Feast of All Souls we pray for the church in purgatory, which is on its way to complete union with the church triumphant. And we on earth, members of the pilgrim church, follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us.
The history of our diocese clearly shows how much we owe to those who have gone before us and how the prayers of the church triumphant lead to that establishment. The earliest organized attempt to establish the Catholic Church in the modern territory of South Carolina came quickly after the new freedoms won through the American Revolution. Rome provided leadership by appointing John Carroll as Prefect Apostolic of the United States Missions in June 1784 and the first bishop of Baltimore, which covered the entire United States, in November 1789. Perhaps the most important reason that Carroll was made a bishop was the difficulty of dealing with lay trustees in the church in New York as well as a similar situation in Philadelphia. Having a bishop in the United States would probably do a great deal to help end the problem. It would not be the last time a see in the United States was established in order to deal with the problem raised by the practice of lay trusteeism.
After so many years of persecution and simple neglect, the Catholics who were scattered across the Carolinas and Georgia made the first steps toward establishing some limited forms of organized
public Catholicism. Bishop John England noted
that the greatest obstacle in this attempt to establish the Catholic Church in the Carolinas was the fact that although there were some Catholics “especially in the Carolinas, their
existence was absolutely
unknown not only to their neighbours of other religious denominations, but they in most instances did not know each other.”
An early history of the Diocese of Charleston compiled by Bishop England in 1832 relates that about the year 1786 a “vessel bound to South America put into the port of Charleston. There was a priest aboard: as well as can be recollected, he was an Italian.” By this point the few Catholics in the city of Charleston had become aquainted with each other and invited the priest to celebrate Mass which he willingly did “in the house of an Irish Catholic, for a congregation Mass of about twelve persons.” The priest appears to have departed with the ship for South America, but it was this event that seems to have brought together the Catholics of Charleston for the first time. They soon made further efforts to establish a small congregation and sought assistance from several sources.
By 1788, with the help of a French priest known only as “Mr. Paulin,” the Catholics of Charleston had organized themselves into a small congregation and
shortly afterward established St. Mary’s as the first parish in the Carolinas and Georgia. After the departure of “Mr. Paulin,” members of the small congregation asked Bishop Carroll to send a priest to Charleston, a request he made every effort to fulfill as soon as possible. The first pastor Carroll was able to assign to St. Mary’s was Father Matthew Ryan, a native of Dublin, Ireland, who came to Charleston in September 1788 and remained for about two years before he had to leave due to ill health. Little is known of Father Ryan’s activities, but it seems that he
was able to organize the small congregation and rent a small wooden building until the congregation could afford to build a church.
When Father Ryan left the city, Bishop Carroll assigned Father Thomas Keating to St. Mary’s. Father Keating was in Charleston by August 1789 when he purchased the property and a small wooden building that Father Ryan had rented for the use of the congregation.
Encouraged by the fact that the Spanish crown had recently contributed to the building of a church in New York, Bishop Carroll wrote the Spanish Consul General in Philadelphia for assistance in constructing their church. In his letter Bishop Carroll informs the consul:
“According to the information sent me from Charleston the number of Catholics is about 200: Every day they become more numerous. Many, whom past discouragements and oppression kept concealed, begin to show themselves. Our religion has not been exercised publikly there above two years. The Catholics there are mostly poor. They have no Church; but divine service performed in a ruinous house, which they have hired. I presume that a Church about 75 feet long by 50 in breadth would be sufficient for some years yet to come. To build & provide such a church with all necessaries for divine service would require at least 15,000 dollars.”
There is no record of a response to Bishop Carroll’s request but the small congregation in Charleston was able to survive. In 1791, the parish was incorporated by the state legislature of South Carolina and over the next 20 years several priests were sent to Charleston where the number of Catholics slowly, but steadily, increased. Despite the difficulties that arose at St. Mary’s and the small number of Catholics, it was from this small group that Catholicism was established in the Carolinas and Georgia, an area now counting nearly half a million Catholics. It is appropriate that we remember those first Catholics throughout this month, asking for their prayers for our continued prosperity of religion and offering our prayers for them so that they may be lead into the presence of God as members of the church triumphant.
Father Scott J.A. Buchanan is administrator of St. Ann Church in Holly Hill and moderator of St. Mary Church in Summerton.