By Nancy Schwerin
CHARLESTON — Longtime parishioners of Our Lady of Mercy Church stood on the street amid broken, charred glass as they watched insurance agents survey the damage from the fire that ravaged their parish.
Faulty wiring reportedly set the 90-year-old church ablaze Aug. 20. At about 12:30 a.m., a neighbor saw flames shooting from the air conditioning unit and called the fire department. Parish personnel were tracked down, and once on the scene, they, with the help of the firemen, brought to safety the Blessed Sacrament and the crucifix that hung over the altar.
When daylight came, there was a blackened outline of where the crucifix hung. Most of the Stations of the Cross were empty picture frames, but the Lord still led the way.
With the Blessed Sacrament in safe harbor and a light in their hearts, the crowd on the street talked of rebuilding with Bishop Robert J. Baker.
The bishop spent the morning observing the scene, consoling parishioners, and spreading the word about the rebuilding fund.
The church was constructed in 1912 as a Methodist church on America Street on the east side of downtown Charleston. It was blessed a Catholic church in 1928. Since then the church has seen numerous ups and downs, but has survived to be a vibrant, generous community hub.
In the basement of the church, volunteers daily serve hundreds of east side residents at the soup kitchen, Neighborhood House, which was flooded during the fire.
Vonceil Mitchell, director of the facility, along with Dominican Sisters Pat Keating and Joan Looney, and numerous volunteers relocated the soup kitchen, and just 24 hours after the fire area residents found their way to the clothes closet next door where they were served a sack lunch.
It was important to get the kitchen up and running explained Sister Keating, regional coordinator for Catholic Charities, because they usually get busier at the end of the month.
“The second half of the month is when people start to run out of money, particularly those who receive government aid,” she said. “They’re used to hardship though, so they kind of roll with it. They’re grateful we’re doing the sandwiches.”
That night, Aug. 21, the community met at St. Patrick Church on St. Philip Street. It was decided that the 8:30 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Mercy would continue at St. Patrick’s. Father Peter Kulandai, pastor of St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Mercy, told the parishioners that the venue may change, but the service will remain the same, and he said everyone is welcome to attend.
“Parishioners expressed their willingness to volunteer,” said Dorothy Grillo, director of Catholic Charities, who attended the meeting. “Several also said it was important for them to take an active role in rebuilding and raising funds.”
She said the feeling at the meeting was “a strong commitment to rebuild the church better than ever.”
Rebuilding is expected to take between three to six months.
The diocese established two funds, one for Neighborhood House and one for OLM. If you’d like to donate, make checks payable either to Neighborhood House or to the Our Lady of Mercy Rebuilding Fund and send to P.O. Box 300, Charleston, SC 29402.