By JULIE DOWNS
RIDGELAND – Many Lowcountry Catholics have fond memories of youthful summers spent at Camp St. Mary’s. The planned transformation of the camp’s site into a county park should provide similar memories for a new generation.
Camp St. Mary’s served as a summer religious education camp for the Diocese of Charleston for more than three decades. The diocese has leased the site to the Lowcountry Human Development Center since 1972, which offers educational support services to the economically disadvantaged of Beaufort and Jasper counties, with its primary program being an alternative high school for pregnant and parenting teen-agers. A 1991 lease agreement with the center offered it the option of purchasing the property.
Officials from Lowcountry, who were considering re-locating the center, consulted with the diocese about exercising the option and selling the property to Beaufort County for the development of a new park. The diocese has given its blessing to the sale, Vicar General Monsignor Sam R. Miglarese said, as its planned use by the county maintains the legacy of Camp St. Mary’s.
Many in the Beaufort community, especially area Catholics, were concerned that the rampant real estate development in the area might consume the camp, located on a lush 10-acre site along the Okatie River. Msgr. Miglarese described the agreement to sell to the county as a “win/win” situation for all parties. Lowcountry Human Development Center can continue to operate on the property and make plans to move to a new facility, Beaufort County has a perfect site on which to develop a much-needed park, and the diocese is comfortable that such a park is respectful of the history of Camp St. Mary’s.
“This will preserve the memories of so many Lowcountry Catholics and it will expand upon the opportunity for the public to enjoy this beautiful piece of God’s acre,” Msgr. Miglarese said.
“It is the best option for all parties,” adds Neil Bacon, executive director of Lowcountry Human Development Center. “The property has a legacy of public service that extends 60 years … our board of directors wanted it to remain for public use.”
Bacon said, for their purposes, it is no longer cost-effective to operate the school on the site. The center owns 10 acres adjacent to the nearby Beaufort-Jasper Career Education Center, but it may take years to move to a new site. He said they are currently working with county officials to determine how long the center will continue operating on the property.
As for the county, officials say they hope to develop the park with the least amount of disruption to the center and to the beautiful landscaping. A.C. Boehm, Director of Parks and Leisure Services for Beaufort County, said the county plans to take a slow, consultative approach. The first step would be to get experts to evaluate the facilities, especially the pool and pier, and to make any repairs necessary without disturbing the operation of the center. Then he said they hope to meet with community members to get an idea of what they would like to see in the park. He added that they envision a “passive park” with “no host of ballfields” but simply benches, picnic tables and walking trails.
“We want to preserve the beautiful scenery so that people can come and do the things a lot of people like to do when they come to a park,” he said, such as picnic, throw the Frisbee, take nature walks. Boehm, a Catholic who attends St. Peter’s Church in Beaufort, said the county is respectful of Camp. St. Mary’s history. “We won’t disturb the Catholic authenticity of the area.”
Camp St. Mary’s was founded in 1929 as a summer parish camp to the Beaufort Missions. It was initially conducted at the plantation home of W.E. Pinckney at Guerard’s Point in Pritchardville, S.C. In 1931, Bishop Emmet M. Walsh decided to establish the camp as a diocesan, statewide institution and the camp was officially designated Camp St. Mary’s. A large dining hall and kitchen was constructed and an electric power plant installed to give lighting and pump water for bathing. A comparable Camp St. Ann’s was established in the Piedmont for children of the northern and western part of the diocese.
Once it became a statewide institution, the diocese decided Camp St. Mary’s needed a permanent location of its own. In 1935, a section of land across the river from the original campsite was purchased and two large barracks, a dining hall and kitchen, and a sisters’ convent and chapel were constructed. The new camp was dedicated in June of 1935.
Camp St. Mary’s remained as a diocesan camp until 1967 and from 1967 to 1972 the facilities were used for summer programs using volunteers and funded by donations. In 1973, Camp St. Mary’s became the year-round site of the programs of the Lowcountry Human Development Center. Through the years the center has offered a variety of programs including: migrant education, work training, home-based parent training, parent training for mentally-challenged mothers and family literacy. The primary program of the center has been the Alternative High School for pregnant and parenting teen-agers which offers all the academics required for a diploma plus training in parenting and child-rearing. Bacon said they currently have 20 young women enrolled.