ROCK HILL — Long before the civil rights marches of the 1960’s, a group of priests and religious brothers in South Carolina were combating racism out of the spotlight.
In 1946, members of The Oratory founded a church in the city’s black community and started youth athletic teams that were barred from white city leagues.
In 1954, the Catholic school they helped found with St. Anne parish was the first segregated school in the state to admit black students.
And in the 1960’s and 70’s, Oratorians were behind lunch counter sit-ins and protests by high school students marginalized even after integration.
“It was not always headline stuff but preparing the way,” said Father Joseph Wahl, head of the religious congregation that oversees York County’s Catholic communities.
Their battle against racism is certainly a hallmark of the Oratorians. But their influence on the community — as they approach 75 years of proclaiming God’s word, engaging the community in social justice, and developing a shared ministry with the laity — extends far beyond.
In honor of their service, a Valentine’s Day dinner and auction will be held next month with the aim of raising $100,000 for the religious community.
Instead of shelling out for a fancy restaurant meal on Feb. 14, people from across the state are invited to spend $100 each — or $2,500 or $2,000 for 10-seat VIP tables — for a gourmet feast.
“I’m hoping that every size parish that The Oratory has touched in the last 75 years will be part of this celebration,” said Thi Le.
Le is a Vietnamese restaurant owner who came up with the idea for the dinner and is leading the “heartfelt thanks” effort.
At one time, the Rock Hill Oratory served about 20 percent of parishes in the Diocese of Charleston, Father Wahl said. That included churches in York, Lancaster, Chester, Fairfield, Beaufort, Spartanburg, Camden and South Carolina military bases. Oratorians also celebrated Mass at Columbia area parishes, St. John Neumann and Our Lady of the Hills for 19 years.
The Oratory was founded in Rome in the 1500’s by St. Philip Neri. He combined the life of a hermit with ministering to street people, beggars, prostitutes, the poor and the dying.
His followers, mostly laymen, met with him at a place they would eventually call The Oratory, or a place of prayer.
The Oratory became known for its simple preaching, its service to the community — such as caring for the sick and feeding the hungry — and its belief in using the gifts of the laity.
When the diocese welcomed The Oratory to South Carolina in 1934, a clear mission was to seek converts to Catholicism. The state was less than one percent Catholic and many residents mistrusted and even feared Catholicism.
Father Wahl, now 78, first arrived in Rock Hill in 1947. He remembers that Protestants suspected Catholics of having tails.
The Oratorians’ efforts to organize exploited mill workers and serve the African-American community did not endear them to many residents, but they gained support as they helped establish two Catholic hospitals in York County.
Members of the religious community, such as Brother David Boone, served on civic and local government panels and committees. The Oratory also made ecumenical inroads with its Center for Spirituality and in its ministry at Winthrop University.
“There is no doubt they’ve made Rock Hill a better place,” said Terry Plumb, the recently-retired longtime editor of The Herald newspaper in Rock Hill. He is a Catholic and serves on the 75th anniversary committee.
Plumb noted that it’s rare to find the members at their six-acre campus because they are out in the community putting their faith into practice.
“They probably did more to help this hardshell Protestant area to accept Catholicism than anything,” Plumb said.
If Father Wahl had to pick two of the most significant contributions over the years, he’d point to The Oratory’s efforts toward racial integration and settling Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.
Le first came in contact with The Oratory after she fled Vietnam and settled in the Carolinas. After the war in Southeast Asia, The Oratory helped find homes across South Carolina for hundreds of refugee families. Le served as an interpreter between The Oratory and the Vietnamese community.
She said she was touched by their kindness and their reverence, and has been repaying them for their goodwill ever since. Her four children were baptized at The Oratory church. She and her kinsmen provided handmade furniture for St. Anne School and the Rock Hill churches, and she supplies the priests and brothers with dinner every Sunday night.
Her goal on Valentine’s Day is to fill the Baxter Hood Center with 500 people to honor the eight priests, five brothers and three seminarians who now serve 4,500 families in the fast-growing region.
“For all they have done, this night is for them,” Le said.
1934 — Bishop Emmet M. Walsh welcomed the establishment of The Oratory and recommended Rock Hill as its location. Father Paul Hatch founded the Oratory with the support of Oratories in England and Germany.
Mid 1930s — The Oratorians and the Franciscan Sisters established St. Philip’s Mercy Hospital in Rock Hill, which closed in 1958.
Late 1930s — Oratorians helped organize workers to improve the quality of life in textile mills.
1946 — Oratorians established St. Mary Mission, which became a center for spiritual and social development for African-Americans.
1951-52 — The Oratory and St. Anne parish opened St. Anne School. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross at the school in 1954 after it made South Carolina history by integrating four girls and one boy from St. Mary Mission into the school.
1975 — Oratorians helped more than 100 Vietnamese refugee families settled in Rock Hill.
1983 — The Oratory formed Lake Wylie Catholic Community, renamed All Saints Mission in 1994, which was dedicated in 2006 as the fifth Catholic church in York County.
1997 — The Oratory became home to the Diocesan Institute for Parish Leadership Development for religious and laity. It offered courses from theology to parish administration and closed in 2005.
Present — The Oratory offers retreats, prayer vigils, workshops, summer camps and courses to fulfill its mission. The order hopes to establish a sixth Catholic church in the York County area.
Michaela Scott contributed to this article.