MARION—When George Magera moved to Marion County in 1950, the U.S. Navy veteran of World War II soon discovered it was going to be a major challenge to practice his faith.
Magera, who worked in Mullins, found there was no Catholic Church in Marion County. Instead, he had to take a bus on Sunday mornings to Mass at St. Louis Church in Dillon, and return that afternoon on a rambling, coal-burning train called the “Boll Weevil Express.”
Eventually, he and other members of Marion’s small Catholic population started attending holy day Masses in local residents’ homes.
That small but growing community eventually worked with Father Anthony Plikunas to get a church of their own. The Church of the Infant Jesus Mission was formally dedicated by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler on Jan. 22, 1967, and today it serves about 80 families.
Now, 50 years later, Magera is the oldest living member of the mission community, and he celebrated that milestone anniversary with more than 100 others on May 7.
Current and former members, plus visitors from Dillon and other nearby cities, attended a reverent, beautiful Mass of Thanksgiving celebrated by Father Noel Tria, pastor.
Father Tria congratulated the congregation on the anniversary.
“We are here celebrating 50 years because we have followed the voice of Jesus in our lives,” he said. “What we celebrate is not just a number. It is the fact that the Lord is always here for us and for the community.”
After Mass, everyone crowded into the parish hall adjacent to the church for a catered brunch and a reception that included emotional speeches from Magera and others.
When Church of the Infant Jesus was built, it became the first and only one in Marion County, where the Catholic population has always been small.
The earliest documented visit of a priest to the town was Father John Schachte, who traveled up from Sullivan’s Island in 1883 because his mission territory included Marion. Catholics in the county during that era had to travel to attend Mass like Magera did, or on rare occasions priests such as Father Schachte would arrive to celebrate Mass in someone’s home. In the early 1900s, priests from Sumter and Florence tended to the small flock in Marion. In 1943, Marion County became a mission of St. Louis in Dillon.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Catholic population started to grow as people moved from the north to work in various industries in the area.
According to a published history, land for a new building was purchased from Douglas Wiggins and the late E.J. Wiggins. The mission was designed by James E. Cooney, an architect from Myrtle Beach, and was built by Owens Construction Company, also from Myrtle Beach. It cost about $65,000, mostly financed by the local community. Generous donations came from the Diocesan Development Fund, and also from the Catholic Extension Society in memory of Anna Kraus.
The new church received its name because Father Plikunas, who worked so hard to have it built, had a special devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague.
In the early years of the mission, the church was partitioned so religious education and other activities could be held in one part of it. As membership grew, a parish hall became necessary and Degan Hall, named after Father David Degan, was eventually built in 1996.
A serenely beautiful rosary garden, located in front of Degan Hall, was dedicated in January 2010. The garden was the idea of Father Marcian Thet Kyaw, administrator from 2009-2012, who had a goal of increasing the devotion to Mary wherever he served. Anonymous donors from Rock Hill gave money for the statue of Mary and its pedestal.
Beth Lett attended the celebration with her mother, Barbara Bishop Taylor, who is also one of the mission’s founding members. Lett was 12 when her family moved to Marion and she raised her children at Church of the Infant Jesus.
“I’ve been thinking that there are so many memories connected to a church over a lifetime — our family has had five marriages, four funerals and about 12 baptisms at this place,” Lett said.
“Church of the Infant Jesus has changed over the years, but it is still a warm, accepting group of culturally diverse people who come from a lot of different places,” she continued. “It was a wonderful experience to grow up here, and now being here today really makes you think about the important role a church plays in your life.”
Top photo: Members of the Knights of Columbus greet people as they arrive for the Mass of Thanksgiving to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in Marion.