GLOVERVILLE — Members of the small parish of Our Lady of the Valley, in what is known as the Horse Creek Valley or “Mill Valley” of South Carolina, can’t say enough about Father John Lawlor.
Father Lawlor, CM (Congregation of the Mission) is a Vincentian priest who served as the parish administrator from 1996 until earlier this year, when he had to step down because of illness.
He came to Our Lady of the Valley because the parish didn’t have a full-time priest serving it at the time. In his decade of ministry he left what parishioners say is an indelible mark on the congregation of 136 households.
He became known up and down the valley as a man who loved to meet and talk to people, and to teach them about the love and mercy of God, said Deacon Robert J. Waters, the parish life facilitator at the church.
Deacon Waters said people in the parish were saddened when Father Lawlor had to leave because of neuropathy in his legs. Father Lawlor is currently living at the St. Catherine’s Infirmary in Philadelphia.
“All the people here loved him a great deal, and they know he felt the same way towards the people,” Waters said. “He was the most personable man, and his homilies were always on loving God. And just the burdens he faced while he was here made people look beyond themselves.”
Gloverville is almost at the center of a chain of small communities running between Aiken and the Georgia border. For several decades the area was the center of a thriving textile industry, but mills have closed in recent years and the valley’s poverty rate has risen as a result.
Despite difficulties the residents faced, the valley still brought great happiness to Father Lawlor, who said what many residents lacked in material wealth, they more than made up for in spiritual wealth.
“If I were to sum up those 10 years there, I’d say they were the 10 happiest years of my priesthood,” he said in an interview with The Miscellany.
“I was a missionary in China, I ran a retreat house in Michigan, but I thought the most joyful and rewarding years were in the valley.”
Father Lawlor served as director of St. Lazare Retreat House in Michigan from 1966 to 1984. In 1984, he became director of the Daughters of Charity of the Southeastern Province and served at the order’s motherhouse in Emmitsburg, Md.
He volunteered to become pastor at Our Lady of the Valley in 1996. He recalled that he felt welcome in the community from the beginning, and he now refers to the valley as home.
“Many people there and the community as a whole are poor in the sense of worldly wealth, but they are extremely rich in the sense of God’s presence,” he said. “The people at Our Lady of the Valley and in the community have their own spirit, and a real sense of family life and family love.”
Carolyn Cleckley, a lifelong resident of the Gloverville area and parish member for more than 30 years, recalled how she would drive Father Lawlor to visit sick parishioners around the valley area and in hospitals in Aiken and North Augusta.
Cleckley, who became a Catholic in her 20s after being raised in the Methodist church, said she especially appreciated Father Lawlor’s ability to communicate the message of Jesus Christ to a variety of people.
“He was an angel on earth,” Cleckley said. “People would come here from Aiken and Augusta just to hear his sermons. He always had a message, and a direct style. He got right to the point, and you really felt like you had been to church when you saw him speak. A lot of people who joined this church in the past decade came because of him. He reached out to everyone regardless of who they were.”
“The spiritual life he gave us was the greatest gift he gave,” Deacon Waters said. “His homilies always had a specific spiritual direction. He led Bible studies that had people coming from all over to attend. People began seeking him out because they heard of the great guidance he could offer.”
Waters and other parish members said Lawlor was also known for his vigor and his outdoor activities. He frequently could be seen walking at 5 a.m. at a track in the nearby town of Clearwater, and spent many afternoons mowing the lawn of the small house next to the church which served as his rectory.
“He exercised a whole lot, and when it needed to be done he hopped on the tractor to cut the grass,” Deacon Waters said. “He is that kind of down to earth person, and because of that he was especially able to appeal to adults and the senior citizens in the area.”
Although Father Lawlor is currently unable to travel and return to the valley he loves, he said he is in almost constant correspondence with area residents by phone and by e-mail. He said some have even traveled to Philadelphia to visit him.
“Boy, do I ever hear from them,” he said. “Many have begged me to come down again for a visit, but I’m on a walker and really can’t travel. I love hearing from them, though.”
Deacon Waters said parishioners are kept up to date on Father Lawlor’s situation in special notes in the bulletin, and there are plans to put together a video of recorded parishioners’ greetings to send to him in Philadelphia.