Father Gregory West: from make-believe to the real deal
DANIEL ISLAND—Father Gregory West was born as the eye of Hurricane Helene passed over Charleston, so it’s fitting that his staff refers to him as the hurricane, or sometimes the tornado.
Either way, he’s a man who is constantly in motion, but his friends say he keeps a sense of peace and joy throughout it all.
Gregory West is shown with his parents on the day of his baptism in 1958.
These are good qualities to have for a priest who recently helped create a new parish on Daniel Island and is preparing to launch a major fundraising campaign for their upcoming St. Clare of Assisi Church that will be built near Bishop England High School.
For Father West, it’s like coming full circle.
As a boy, he grew up on Sullivan’s Island where he spent a lot of time enjoying the beach, riding bikes and crabbing, and said his second home was Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) Church. He also attended Stella Maris School in Mount Pleasant and graduated from Bishop England in 1976.
He said the Church was imprinted on his DNA and he knew by the time he was 6 that he wanted to be a priest.
“We used to play Mass and I was the priest with a cardboard altar,” Father West said, smiling at the memory. “And some kid would invariably get a Barbie or a doll and we’d have a baptism.”
He still loves baptizing babies and speaks warmly of the mothers and infants he’s guided through the sacrament, including a new set of twins. Father West said he also feels honored to preside over funerals because it allows him to share God’s mercy, comfort people, and celebrate the belief in the resurrection.
A young Gregory West celebrates his first Communion at Stella Maris Church in 1965.
His staff said Father West is happy any time he can be with his parishioners.
“He’s genuinely concerned with the parishioners and where they are in their life,” said Rosemary Vatalaro, secretary. “He likes to hear the stories about what’s going on and how he can help.”
Sarah Viancourt, director of faith formation, said he also enjoys interacting with the youth, and shared some videos of the normally poised and polished priest acting like a kid.
They bring out his “great silly side,” Viancourt said. “It makes him really approachable and successful as a priest.”
But there was a time that Father West almost walked away from his religious calling.
As he moved into his teen years, he was distracted by the world — cars, money, dating. He went to college and took a job in the corporate world in Atlanta, and for about eight years, dropped out of the Church entirely.
It was still there, though, calling him. When he went back, Father West said, “I realized how much I needed Church life, spiritual life. The more I had, the more I wanted.”
He started reading spiritual classics and Scripture, and spent about two years in private discernment, waiting, he said, for the big sign, until he realized: “That’s not how it works — it’s more a series of whispers — prompting, nudging.”
He went to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, which he refers to as “God’s boot camp — Parris Island for priests,” and recalls being nervous because he’d been out of school for about six years and the regimen was very intense.
He was ordained in 1991 by Bishop David B. Thompson and assigned to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist as parochial vicar. It was during his tenure here, where he was also the Episcopal Master of Ceremonies and canonical administrator of Charleston Catholic School, that the bishop appointed him to study for a Licentiate in Canon Law in Rome.
Father West poses with the late Bishop David B. Thompson at his ordination at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in 1991.
Father West said being immersed in the worldwide Church, two miles from Vatican City with constant access to papal liturgies was “such an amazing experience.”
He recalls one time when his mother, Helen, visited and he planned a private Mass for them with Pope John Paul II. When he told his mother where they were going, she thought he was joking and hit him on the arm, saying “Gregory, that’s not funny!”
He smiles at the memory and the joy the experience gave his mom.
Father West said he enjoys being a parish priest and growing the community. He looks back fondly on his time in Bluffton and Clemson, two places that started small and grew mightily.
Father West and his mother, Helen, meet Pope John Paul II.
When he returned from Rome, his first assignment was as pastor of St. Andrew Church in Bluffton. Bishop Thompson told him “to build a new church campus in a different location and … it was to be called St. Gregory the Great.”
St. Gregory the Great was dedicated in 2000 and St. Andrew Church was renamed St. Andrew Chapel. During his 12 years as pastor, the number of parishioners grew from about 80 to more than 4,000 families. Father West then served as pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Clemson and the missions in Walhalla and Seneca.
In 2014, he was named founding pastor of St. Clare of Assisi Parish, which was canonically established on April 20, 2014. The parish has been growing ever since and hopes to open its new church doors in 2021.