A new film tells the story of a community of Black Catholics in Colleton County who kept practicing their faith even though they went 40 years without a priest to celebrate Mass for them.
“We Came A Long Way by Faith: Catholic Hill and St. James the Greater Catholic Church” was released in July. It was produced by George Wingard, a South Carolina filmmaker who is also the program coordinator for the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program in New Ellenton.
The film tells the story of St. James the Greater Mission, located at 3087 Ritter Road in southern Colleton County outside Walterboro. This is not just a simple church history, but a testament of the dedication and perseverance of a community determined to hold fast to their Catholic faith despite some remarkable obstacles. It is free to watch online at http://www.srarp.org/videos or view it from the Vimeo site.
Catholic worship in the area, which was originally known as Walnut Hill and then Thompson’s Crossroads, started with Irish planters who became Catholic and taught the faith to their slaves. A church was first built in the area and dedicated by Bishop John England in 1833. That church, however, burned in 1856 and was not rebuilt, and the planters moved away from the area after the Civil War.
The Black Catholics, now free people, remained behind, left without a church and without a priest to celebrate Mass. Vincent de Paul Davis, a former slave who owned a general store in the area, taught religious education to the community’s children and led prayer services.
Through Davis’ dedication and others who followed his lead, the residents of what became known as “Catholic Hill” maintained their faith for 40 years, even though they received no outreach from the Diocese of Charleston.
Finally in 1894, Father Daniel Berberich, a priest from Charleston, discovered the forgotten community of about 60, and started celebrating Mass for them. A new church was built in 1894, followed by a Catholic school in 1896.
The current church was built in 1935, and the former schoolhouse, now restored, serves as the parish center.
Today, St. James the Greater is a mission of St. Anthony Church in Walterboro and serves about 100 families.
Wingard learned about St. James the Greater in 2018 when he was in Colleton County shooting “B” roll for another film he made about the historic Pon Pon Chapel. He was struck by the story and decided he wanted to document it.
After meeting with St. James’ congregation, he started work on the film in early 2019, interviewing many members of the community, and completed it in April of this year.
“There are times when all of us question our faith, whatever we believe in, and here were people who had every reason not to hold on to their faith, and they still did,” Wingard said.
Alison McCletchie, an assistant professor of sociology at Claflin University in Orangeburg, has done extensive research on the St. James community and was one of Wingard’s main sources for the film. She said it not only tells a little-known and important story of Black Catholic history in South Carolina, but also offers some important lessons about faith.
“Their story shows the importance of good catechists who can pass down the faith,” McCletchie said “Also, since we’re in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s a time when many of us can’t go receive communion, this film reminds us how much the faith and the sacrament really means.”
“Many are complaining because they can’t receive the Eucharist for a few months, but these people didn’t receive it for years and years and still were able to hold on,” McCletchie continued. “The story of St. James also teaches us an important lesson about the universal church, and how we truly all are brothers and sisters in the faith.”
Wingard and McCletchie said they are disappointed that the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented them from holding a private screening of the film for the St. James community, but they hope to schedule one as soon as it is possible.
Showings at conferences and other events also had to be cancelled. The film has been entered in a few independent film festivals that were held virtually.
One public screening is still scheduled for the upcoming Freedom Film Festival event in Columbia. Wingard said the film will be shown Aug. 21 at 5:18 p.m. at Spotlight Cinemas Capitol 8, Suite 223 at 201 Columbia Mall Boulevard. The event is open to the public.
More information about the film is also available through a Facebook group at https://bit.ly/33YjbTJ .