MOUNT PLEASANT—Msgr. James A. Carter sits in his office at Christ Our King Church, surrounded by mementos of five decades in the priesthood.
There are photos of him as a clean-shaven young man celebrating his first Mass in 1966, and later ones with longer hair and full beard, reflecting the style of the ’70s. He also has beautiful paintings of Jesus on the walls, and a sampling of his collection of crosses. He points to one and explains how a parishioner made it for him out of railway nails.
“It’s been a good 50 years,” Msgr. Carter said. In talking about his chosen path, though, he still seems a little surprised that he ended up here. A native Charlestonian, he attended local Catholic schools, including St. Patrick’s, the Cathedral and Bishop England, but life as a pastor was not a typical calling for the Broad Street community that he called home — and his parents were not supportive of their only son becoming a priest.
In fact, as a college student who was busy dating and attending debutante parties, the priesthood wasn’t something he wanted either.
“But I kept thinking — this idea of the seminary kept coming into my mind,” he said. Finally, he decided to attend seminary just to quiet the voice and get the idea out of his system. It didn’t work.
“I didn’t get rid of the idea,” he said, smiling, “so 50 years later, here I am.”
After attending Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, he was ordained into the priesthood on May 7, 1966, by Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler in his home parish, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
He served as associate pastor at three churches and then was given his first assignment as a pastor at Holy Spirit on Johns Island in 1973. Again, it was not something he wanted to do, and he felt like he was being sent to the edge of nowhere.
The tiny church was originally located along Bohicket Road — it’s now the chapel of the new Holy Spirit on Betsy Kerrison Parkway. Back then, the mission church held about 75 people. The monsignor chuckles at the memories, recalling how bugs flew in the screenless windows and their Stations of the Cross were pages from a children’s book. His first Mass drew about six people, and the motorcycle-driving, “hippie”-looking priest was not an immediate hit. Shortly, however, the pastor and people became a community.
“Johns Island was a wonderful experience; I’m so glad I went,” Msgr. Carter says now.
The priest, who has an irreverent sense of humor and the habit of saying exactly what he thinks, says his job is not to make people comfortable and happy, but to make them think. He obviously did that, as parishioners from 30 or more years ago still recall his homily messages.
Msgr. Carter looks back fondly on each church and the communities he served. Following Holy Spirit, the priest spent time at St. Paul the Apostle in Spartanburg and St. Mary in Aiken before landing in his home city in 1989 as pastor of Christ Our King.
He has been there ever since.
Msgr. Carter acknowledged that it’s uncommon for a priest to remain in one parish for so long, but extenuating circumstances kept him close to his roots. Chief among them was his role as vicar general from 1998-2004, he said, noting that it made sense for him to remain physically close to the seat of the diocese.
During his years as a priest, he also served as rector of Cardinal Newman School and chaplain of the Ursuline Convent, both in Columbia, and held a number of other positions including vicar for clergy and a member of the presbyteral council.
Now, he’s counting down the days to his retirement, which will occur in January. His upcoming jubilee celebration on April 29 will also be a farewell party of sorts.
“It’s time,” he said. “We need young people to come in with new ideas, new creativity.”
Chronic arthritis has also taken a toll. Wearing a back brace, the former running enthusiast moves cautiously, still recovering from his most recent surgery. He is ready for a slower pace.
He’s done a lot in his 27 years at Christ Our King, including founding East Cooper Community Outreach and building The Beach House, a community center for youth and seniors. Two goals that have kept him active in the priesthood are his desire to establish an ECCO satellite center in Huger, which he did; and to purchase property near the church for affordable senior housing.
“I can’t get the people to sell the property, so I’ll probably have to let that dream go,” he said wistfully.
Maybe. But those who know Msgr. Carter point out all he has accomplished through determination and persistence and note that he still has nine months until retirement. Stay tuned.