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St. Mary celebrates 100 years of family and faith

YONGES ISLAND—Memories flooded back for the people who attended the 100th anniversary of St. Mary Church on May 4.

Cherry Constable stood by a grotto to Mary in one corner of the property along S.C. 165 and remembered helping her grandmother, Teresa Hyer, haul coral rock from Edisto Beach to build it in 1942.

Four brothers from the Knisley family — Gene, Johnny, Buddy and Eddie — held a mini reunion. Family members lovingly refer to them as “The Altar Boys” because they all served Masses at the church when they were growing up in the ’40s and ’50s.

Stories, laughter, hugs and tears flowed during the anniversary, which included Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone and a May procession. The church’s oldest member, 100-year-old Clementa Florio, crowned the grotto’s statue with a wreath of flowers.

Catholics in the area first worshipped together in a community called St. Philomena, started by Father Daniel J. Quigley and originally located at Martins Point on nearby Wadmalaw Island.

The congregation moved into a church building on Yonges Island in 1892, after the population started to shift to that area because of railroad connections.

The original St. Philomena Church, located at the end of S.C. 165, was destroyed by a hurricane in 1911. Catholics then met for Mass in private homes and an old store in the nearby town of Hollywood.

In 1914, the current church was completed just down the road from the old St. Philomena site and renamed St. Mary at the request of a major donor.

The original building, made of white clapboard wood, was eventually bricked over. Constable and other long-time members said the interior, now painted white, was originally made of natural wood.

Surviving stained glass from St. Philomena is located behind the altar. Stained glass windows bear the names of original members, and a lovely rosary garden behind the church is dedicated to the Schmidts, one of the founding families.

The Knisley brothers stood on the front lawn together before Mass and sat around a table during brunch afterward, discussing family members who helped build the church and rectory. One brother said local children would play on the church grounds, and he vividly remembers hitting a baseball through one of the church windows.

They said the church was a social center for the area, regularly hosting oyster roasts, parties for local children and other events.

“This is just a wonderful day, like a homecoming,” Gene Knisley said. “It’s almost too emotional, all the memories. It’s great to see people who we knew here that have come back, and also some of the people who have lived here all along.”

“This day brings back a lot of memories,” said Patty Maginn Dhooge of Charleston, who grew up in a house right down the street from the church.

“I can remember us walking down here for Mass every Sunday. My grandmother made sure we were at this church all the time,” she said.

About 60 families currently belong to St. Mary. The parish has an active social ministry centered in the nearby towns of Hollywood and Meggett. Members help out at a food pantry at John Wesley United Methodist Church in Hollywood and assist people with utility and medical bills.

The parish also supports Sts. Frederick and Stephen Mission about 25 miles away on Edisto Island.

The current congregation includes many people who came to the area in recent years, especially retirees who like the area’s quiet beauty and coastal charm.

Father Antony Benjamine, parish administrator, said St. Mary is special because members care deeply about each other and about their church.

“Everything we have been able to do here has been because of their hard work and cooperation,” he said. Church secretary Carolyn Gibbs joined about eight years ago after she and her husband moved to Yonges Island from New York. They visited several different churches in the Charleston area before coming to St. Mary.

“We came here and someone noticed us and said ‘You’re new! Here, come have a cup of coffee with us,’” she said. “That sold us. This parish is like a family.”

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