Xavier Wedderburn, a pre-kindergartener at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, hugs his mom, Kay Wedderburn, who is in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, after a Blue Mass held in October. Every year, many schools take time to honor all first responders, including men and women who serve in the military or law enforcement, or as emergency responders, firefighters and more. Photos provided.
GREENWOOD—When Veterans Day rolls around on Nov. 11, Alex Harris will observe the day from a perspective that is becoming increasingly rare.
Harris, 91, is a World War II veteran who served on a destroyer in the U.S. Navy.
He is a member of a distinguished but dwindling community. According to statistics compiled by the Veterans Administration, World War II veterans are dying at a rate of about 550 a day. That means only about 1.2 million of the 16 million who served in that war are still alive to tell their stories.
Harris, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Greenwood, is happy to be one of them. He looks back on his years of service with pride and no regrets.
He was born in Clinton but lived most of his life in Greenwood. The war disrupted his otherwise quiet existence when he and his family learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 while a local priest was celebrating Mass in their home.
Harris quickly decided he didn’t want to wait around for the Army to draft him, so in 1942 he went to Columbia at age 18 to enlist in the Navy. Within a week, he left for boot camp, and was assigned to the U.S.S. Gillespie, part of a four-ship destroyer group that saw action in North Africa and several Pacific theaters, including Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, considered one of the longest and deadliest campaigns of the war.
Harris worked in the boiler room on the Gillespie and is thankful he and his friends came through the war safely.
“My ship didn’t get a scratch, but a Japanese plane dropped a bomb right between the stacks of one of our sister ships,” he said.
Wartime prompted a quick wedding for Harris and his beloved late wife, Helen. They met after he enlisted in the Navy, wrote hundreds of letters to each other, and then decided to get married during a brief, four-day leave he had in 1944. The catch? She was not a Catholic and the young couple had to receive urgent permission from the bishop to marry. They were together for 53 years before Mrs. Harris died in 1997.
Faith was a challenge, too. Harris said he was in the Pacific for a year before a priest arrived to hear confessions and celebrate Mass on one of the ships in his group.
Even though he served in one of the most difficult campaigns of World War II, Harris doesn’t look back on those days with any regret.
“I enjoyed my time in the Navy even though there was a war on,” he said. He still travels to military reunions but missed one held earlier this year in Arizona.
His son Joseph caught the Navy bug and served for 23 years, and Harris proudly recites the names of nieces, nephews and other relatives who have served. He thinks military service ought to be a requirement for young people.
“I think it’s about time that the rest of the public realizes what the military is all about,” he said. “I tell the kids today that if they get a chance to go in the military, and give it their best attention, when they come out they’ll be well prepared for anything that comes along.”
Photos provided by Alex Harris
SUMTER—Cloudy, rainy skies and wintry temperatures couldn’t dampen the joy inside St. Jude Church on the first day of November.
The small church on West Oakland Avenue was packed with people from near and far who came to celebrate the 75th anniversary of a Catholic community that has served as a beacon of hope and friendship over the years.
Over 200 people enjoyed a small concert by the choir, followed by Mass and a banquet in the building which formerly housed St. Jude Catholic High School.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone concelebrated Mass with three Redemptorist priests who currently serve the community: Father Thomas Burke, pastor; and Fathers Charles Donovan and Peter Sousa, the parochial vicars.
The Redemptorist Fathers came to St. Jude in 1996 to replace priests from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who arrived in Sumter in 1939 to open the church.
“St. Jude started as a predominantly black parish, a missionary church for the black community,” said Vernessa Baker. She is a longtime member who attended the parish school as a child and helped organize the anniversary celebration.
At age 84, Wilbert Bracey is St. Jude’s oldest founding member. He joined in 1941 and was baptized in the chapel of the old rectory. He recalled that not everyone was immediately receptive to the Oblate priests when they arrived. Sumter’s black community was mostly Baptist at the time, segregation was in full effect, and some people were suspicious of the newcomers.
The Oblates persevered in their goal to share the Catholic faith and help members of the community, and eventually they were accepted. Bracey recalled that few in the neighborhood owned cars at the time, and the priests would give rides to people and help them run errands.
The first Mass at St. Jude was celebrated in December 1939 in the rectory’s chapel, and the first church building was completed in 1941. The current church was built in 1948.
That year, Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from Buffalo, N.Y., arrived to start an elementary school to educate children from the black community. According to a published parish history, most of the students weren’t Catholic, but many of them eventually joined the faith along with their families. St. Jude School was a fixture in the community until it closed in 1994.
The parish also helped support St. Jude Catholic High School, which operated from 1948 to 1997.
Over the years, St. Jude also played a pivotal role in helping some of the neediest members of the community. The parish sponsored an early childhood enrichment center and a nursery for area children. In 1970, Oblate Father William Atkinson helped start a program for mentally challenged children and adults that eventually became the Sumter County Disabilities and Special Needs Board. Also, Christian Charities of Sumter, an interdenominational program that offers a food pantry for the needy, operates on St. Jude property.
St. Jude existed as a separate parish until 2010, when it was merged with St. Anne Church to form the Catholic Community of Sumter. Mass and other activities are still held at the church on West Oakland, which is also the home of the Sumter Catholic Youth Group, with members from St. Anne, St. Jude and Our Lady of the Skies on Shaw Air Force Base.
The church has also become home to a growing Spanish-speaking community. Spanish Masses are held at 1 p.m. Sundays, and a recently built shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe on the grounds has become a popular place to stop, pray and meditate.
“This church has played a providential role in integration in this community,” Father Burke said during his homily. “Here we are all God’s children, we all have a great dignity in God’s eyes and are part of his family.”
The anniversary celebration offered members a chance to reflect on their years at St. Jude. There were smiles, hugs, and some tears as longtime friends saw each other for the first time in years. Bracey remembered how St. Jude played a role in the social life of the community. He said the old church building that was replaced in 1948 became known as the “Catholic Hall,” and was a center for dances and other social events. Bracey and his friend, Louis Fleming, would “take coats and sell sodas” during the dances. On other nights, people could watch movies projected on sheets hung on the side of the hall.
Parishioner Richard Boisvert recalled how members helped start the diocesan Office for Black Ministry, which eventually evolved into the Office of Ethnic Ministries.
Sister Roberta Fulton, who currently serves as principal at St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia, said one of her first assignments as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur was at St. Jude School. She and Sister Corinne Yarborough said returning to the church and school was like coming home.
“The people here showed me you had Jesus in your hearts,” Sister Corinne said. “You truly taught me what it means to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.”
Maria Stephens of Charleston wanted to say no when she was asked to join the South Carolina Council of Catholic Women 20 years ago.
“I said I’m a young mom, I don’t have time, talent or money,” she said. “They talked me into it, and I soon discovered I did have some time and some talent, and because I joined, I now have lifetime friends who are my treasure.”
Now, Stephens and other members of the group want more women to discover the mix of faith, fellowship and fun they have discovered through SCCCW.
The council was founded in 1930 as a way to unite women across the state. Today, there are 1,300 members who belong through parish affiliates or as individuals. Their motto is “spirituality, leadership and service.”
“We are the voice of Catholic women in the state of South Carolina,” said state president Marlene Grover, who attends St. Andrew Church in Myrtle Beach. “Our goal is to give them the power to work for their church, their family and their communities.”
Members meet annually for a spring state convention hosted by a different deanery each year. The next one will be March 20-22 in Greenville. Some members also travel to the national convention annually, which has been held twice in South Carolina.
Grover said leadership is a big focus for the council. Using funds from a grant from the Sisters of Charity of South Carolina, she is working with longtime members Joan Mack and Barbara Birds to organize traveling leadership workshops for each deanery.
Helping others is a core part of the organization’s work. Statewide projects include contributions to a program called Caps of Love, which collects recycled bottle caps to raise funds for wheelchairs for special needs children. Members also have raised money to build a chapel at the Graham Correctional Institution for Women in Columbia, fund annual scholarships and help the needy overseas through Cross International and other Catholic charities.
Each deanery also has its own service projects. Stephens said the Coastal Deanery has donated supplies to the Lowcountry Pregnancy Center and the Carolina Youth Development Center in North Charleston and helped a program that feeds the homeless in downtown Charleston. In the Piedmont Deanery, members are collecting socks, shirts and other supplies for senior citizens in area nursing homes, and also adopt a needy family each Christmas.
“I love the work we do in this ministry,” said Ruby King, who leads the Piedmont group. “It’s a way to get women together to work for change.”
Pat Dutton, of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach, joined eight years ago and is now president of the Pee Dee deanery. She said membership offers women a chance to nurture their faith and have a real voice in issues facing the church and society.
“A lot of people thought when I moved down here to retire I’d be sitting in front of the TV,” Dutton said. ‘Now I can’t even tell you what’s on the channels because I don’t have time to watch, and that’s a good thing. SCCCW is a different way of staying active, of being part of something that’s bigger than yourself and reaching out to people in need.”
To learn more about the South Carolina Council of Catholic Women, visit www.scccw.org.
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- December 20 2014 Pro-life rosary
- January 09 2015 - January 10 2015 SC march and rally for life
- January 16 2015 - January 16 2015 | 5:00:00 PM National Religious Freedom Day
- January 22 2015 National March for Life
- January 23 2015 St. Joseph School gala
- January 23 2015 St. Joseph gala date change
- January 28 2015 Catholic Days at the Capital