JOHNS ISLAND—Msgr. Charles Rowland had plans to mark the 50th jubilee of his priesthood with a celebratory Mass and a big, joyful pasta supper at his parish on Johns Island during the weekend of May 16-17.
Then the coronavirus showed up and changed those plans, and now the celebration has moved to October. That hasn’t stopped the Charleston native from looking back on his many fruitful and often challenging years in service to the Diocese of Charleston.
Msgr. Rowland approaches this milestone with both a sense of deep spiritual perspective and a keen sense of humor.
“These recent weeks have been the most unique experience of my life,” he said. “I will never forget and no one who knows me or is related to me will ever forget that my jubilee took place during a pandemic. What a combination!”
It’s appropriate that he celebrates his jubilee at a parish that sits sheltered beneath live oaks on Johns Island, only a short drive from the downtown Charleston streets where he grew up as one of nine children in a devout Catholic family. They attended Sacred Heart Church on King Street and he graduated from Bishop England High School.
Msgr. Rowland said he discerned a call to the priesthood in high school, but first completed undergraduate work at the College of Charleston and served four years in the U.S. Air Force, stationed in Holland.
He likes to say that when he returned from overseas he told himself “to fish or cut bait” when it came to his vocation. The call to the priesthood won out, and he attended St. Mary’s College in St. Mary, Kentucky, and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Maryland.
Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler ordained him on May 16, 1970, at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. A few days later, he was appointed vice chancellor of the diocese. It was the beginning of a lifetime of ministry that involved wearing multiple hats at the same time.
Msgr. Rowland’s parish work included stints as associate pastor and rector at the Cathedral, and pastor of St. Mary and Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston, Our Lady of the Valley in Gloverville, Our Lady of Peace in North Augusta, St. Joseph in Columbia, and Our Lady of Good Counsel on Folly Beach. He became pastor at Holy Spirit on Johns Island in 2007.
In addition, he taught at Bishop England High School, served as chaplain for the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, and has taken on dozens of administrative roles, including early stints as director of cemeteries, and evangelization.
For 24 years, he served as judicial vicar for the tribunal. Father C. Thomas Miles succeeded Msgr. Rowland as judicial vicar in 2016 after working with him on the tribunal for 17 years and serving as his parochial vicar at St. Joseph Church in Columbia for three years.
“He was and continues to be an excellent role model for what it means to be a priest and a pastor,” Father Miles said. “I am proud to have him as a mentor, but most of all as a friend. I know that of all the many offices he has held, he is most proud of being a pastor.”
Msgr. Rowland said he has enjoyed and learned important lessons from all of his roles in the diocese.
“I accepted any appointment I received willingly and worked with it the best I could,” he said. “A nun who taught me in third or fourth grade, Sister Mary Martha, told me ‘Charlie, if you do the best you can, the Lord will not fault you.’ And that has been my thing — to do the best I can with whatever I was given.”
He said it has been fascinating to watch the changes in the diocese over the past 50 years.
“I went in the seminary under Bishop Reh and I have since served four other bishops and each one has been a unique experience,” he said. “I also can remember when there were only 98,000 Catholics in the whole state and now we are over 200,000. It’s been a healthy and beautiful growth and I have no fear that the Lord will continue to provide for further growth.”
When he’s not serving the needs of parishioners at Holy Spirit, Msgr. Rowland likes to vacation at family homes in the mountains and at the beach, and work on home improvement and wood-working projects with his younger brother, Ronald. He doubts he will ever fully retire but said he anticipates stepping back from administrative duties in the future. Still, he said, he never wants to leave the role of serving God’s people.
“I just hope that the Lord will give me a few more years with a sound mind and a workable body,” he said. “Over the years, I have come to realize the truth of something St. John XXIII once said, ‘The priest grows in holiness from the holiness of the people he serves.’ That has been the truth of my life as a priest. Every parish I have served has been a beautiful place with wonderful people.”