Bridge-building Franciscan and street corner evangelist retires to sunny Florida
By SISTER ELISE GORMAN, MFIC
ANDERSON — With the biblical theme of the seven days of creation, St. Mary of the Angels parishioners gave Franciscan Father Francis Gorman a farewell celebration to remember before he departed to the religious order’s retirement home in St. Petersburg, Fla.
They told the story of the foundation of the parish and the ministry of Father Gorman to the African-Americans of Anderson in seven stages. Now the friar embarks on his seventh day: “You shall do no work.”
A native of Plains, Pa., he was born on Dec. 3, 1912, to Richard J. and Mary Dougherty Gorman. He attended Sacred Heart High School in Plains and St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, N.Y., earning a bachelor’s degree. Seminary studies were completed at Holy Name Theological College in Washington, D.C., and he was ordained to the priesthood at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on May 30, 1939, by Auxiliary Bishop William McNamara of Baltimore, Md.
Father Gorman, 88, was sent to South Carolina in 1943 by his community, the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Name Province of New York, to begin a parish for African-Americans in Anderson. The order had noted that Anderson was the largest community in the state without a parish for its black population.
“His presence there came about because of the missionary objective of the Franciscan to minister to the poor and the marginalized of the area at that time,” said Franciscan Sister Elise Gorman, a pastoral associate at St. Mary’s (no relation).
He began his ministry by standing for a number of years almost daily on the corner of Fant and Thomas streets — a black neighborhood — introducing himself to all who passed by “to make myself known to the people,” the priest said.
Sister Gorman said, “This was most unusual in the segregated South that a white man with Irish roots would want to establish a church in a black neighborhood.”
Initially, many in the neighborhood were skeptical, but his perseverance, humble manner and genuine heart won them over, earning a number of converts to the faith. Soon, thereafter, having overcome opposition from town officials and suspicion from both the black and white communities, Father Gorman acquired a house on Plain Street where he could teach and celebrate the Eucharist with his newly founded parish family — St. Mary of the Angels.
In addition to his ministry, Father Gorman organized baseball teams and youth clubs for black teen-agers in the neighborhood. At that time, in the 1940s, there were no places in Anderson for young black people to participate in sports. Father Gorman’s purpose for forming these teams and clubs was to help young boys and girls build confidence in themselves.
These groups were personally run by the Franciscan friar, and his strict rules included adherence to the Ten Commandments, regular school attendance, and good social responsibility.
“Though the rules were strict there was always a long waiting list for membership into the clubs,” Father Gorman said. “I did not proselytize. If a child wanted to become Catholic, he or she could ask to be instructed.”
At the 90-minute farewell celebration on Sept. 2, one of the priest’s former team members, Al Norris, said that Father Gorman came into their lives at a critical time and gave a lot of hope to them as black teen-agers.
The present church building on White Street was built in 1951 with just about 30 members.
“But over the years a number of white families came to St. Mary’s because of the welcoming openness and warmth found there,” said Sister Gorman.
Father Gorman was pastor there for 31 years, spending time in between at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville as well as at St. Benedict the Moor Parish in Winston Salem, N.C.
At the priest’s 50th anniversary of his ordination observance in June 1989, it was noted in The Miscellany that people came from several hundred miles to join in the Mass and dinner in honor of Father Gorman.
He spoke at the time about what priests must learn through the years. “He learns that matters do not always turn out the way he would like; he may experience disappointment or discouragement at times; he tires physically and emotionally; his personal failings become glaringly evident. But, he is also encouraged and inspired to the nth degree buy the goodness, the wholesomeness, the kindness, the deep spirituality of so many of his people.”
Franciscan Father David Hyman has been pastor of the church for the past seven years and has continued Father Gorman’s vision of reaching out to the disenfranchised by ministering to the Hispanic community. A Spanish Mass is offered every Sunday at 12:15 p.m. for natives of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras, and Mexico.
“Jesus can be found in south Anderson,” said Father Hyman. “Father Francis has shown Christ’s love for all people. He has been a bridge builder.”
In an Aug. 31 letter to the retiring Franciscan, Bishop Robert J. Baker thanked him for his 43 years of priestly service to the Diocese of Charleston. “Your willingness to assist various parishes in the Upstate when needed has been appreciated,” wrote the bishop. “You are a true son of St. Francis of Assisi, having ministered to the poor, lonely, marginalized and the alienated.”
He then stated, “… You must know that you are much loved by the people that you have ministered to, and you are respected for your dedication and hard work serving as a priest for 62 years, and as a Franciscan friar for 68 years.”
While Father Gorman may have gone to Florida to live with 24 other retried friars and enjoy his “seventh day,” he will not be forgotten in the Upstate.