FLORENCE—Ask members of St. Anne Church in Florence to describe their parish in its 75th year, and you will hear words such as “love,” “community” and “family.”
They celebrated the milestone recently with a week of special services, a dinner, and a highly anticipated anniversary Mass and fellowship lunch on Oct. 22. More than 100 people packed the small church for the liturgy concelebrated by Father Noel Tria, the pastor, and three other priests. Afterward, everyone joined for a group photo and then joyfully crowded into the parish hall.
One look around during lunch showed just what makes St. Anne so special to its members. Packed tables were filled with dishes from many different cultures including traditional Southern food, Filipino, Hispanic and Italian dishes.
People of all ages and many backgrounds sat and ate together, laughed, hugged, and shared stories of their years together.
“If you look around here you feel love, just like I felt the first time coming to Mass here,” said Mae Adams, who joined the church 35 years ago. “St. Anne is a place filled with people who just try to walk in a Christ-like way together every day.”
St. Anne was founded by priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who came to South Carolina in the late 1930s to do mission work in the black community. Oblate priests originally traveled from Sumter to celebrate Mass in Florence, and eventually Oblate Father Daniel F. Foley was given permission to establish a church there. St. Anne was officially dedicated on Oct. 19, 1941, by Bishop Emmet M. Walsh, and Father Foley was the first pastor. The Oblates served at St. Anne until 1995.
Parishioners say the church may have been intended for the black community, but the congregation quickly became more diverse. Tourists of all races often stopped for Mass, and membership diversified as military retirees and people coming to Florence for work joined the church. Today, the parish of more than 200 families includes a growing Hispanic and Filipino community, plus immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.
When St. Anne first began, the neighborhood surrounding it was quiet, almost semi-rural, full of small houses and families who all knew each other. Now, much of that land has been consumed by the growth of McLeod Regional Medical Center, but memories remain.
Deacon James Johnson stood outside during the anniversary celebration and pointed up and down Kemp Street, recalling where houses used to be, and how farm animals used to graze on nearby fields. Johnson grew up across the street from St. Anne, and a picture of him as a small child was on display during the celebration.
He started attending St. Anne at age 11, and described coming to the church early on Sundays to light the kerosene heater so the building would be warm in time for Mass.
Johnson told stories about the old neighborhood that surrounded the church before growth changed things. One man ran a sawmill nearby, he said, and one day a blade sprung loose and rolled several blocks, right past St. Anne. “It was a miracle no one was hurt,” he said.
He and others also recalled a small neighborhood bakery on a nearby street, and how the smell of baking cookies and bread was a sweet distraction during activities at the church.
Johnson left Florence in 1955 to serve in the military, and returned to his home parish after serving 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. In 1995, he became St. Anne’s first deacon.
Longtime member Mary West, who also grew up in the neighborhood, remembered how Jimmy Burch would cook barbecue in a pit at the back of the church in the early ‘70s and sell the dinners to locals to raise money for St. Anne.
She also has fond memories of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who served the parish for many years, teaching religious education, running a kindergarten for neighborhood children, and helping members of the community.
West said the sisters would show movies by projecting them on the outside wall of the church.
Currently St. Anne is home to several thriving programs, including religious education and RCIA, the Helping Hands social outreach, a safety committee, Legion of Mary and an active women’s guild.
The church surroundings have changed over the years, but the community spirit never changes, members say.
Kay Schweers, who edits the parish bulletins, has been a member of St. Anne for more than 25 years.
“This church is my family,” she said. “It feels like that to me and so many others because many of us here are transplants from somewhere else. This church literally becomes your family. People check on each other. They care about each other here.”
Top photo: Deacon James Johnson greets people outside St. Anne Church in Florence as they arrive for the 75th anniversary celebration on Oct. 22.