Father Buchanan rediscovers state’s Catholic history


Father Scott Buchanan’s studies in Rome have given him quite an historical perspective at home.

After completing a dissertation on the history of Catholicism in the Carolinas and Georgia from 1670 to 1820, he has an added appreciation for the pioneering priests who ministered to the South.

“I drive 150 miles round-trip to say three Masses,” he said. “Anytime I have the temptation to complain a little bit about the drive, I just think about the circuit rider priests during Bishop England’s episcopacy and how they rode for two days on horseback to go say Mass.”

Father Buchanan, a Charleston native, went to Rome after his ordination in 1997 to complete a degree and license in church history at the Gregorian Pontifical University. The licensing procedure allows him to teach, it can only be given by a pontifical university. He studied South Carolina Catholic history at the suggestion of Bishop David B. Thompson.

“The Bishop said he was hoping to have a history of the diocese written so I was honored and very grateful,” the priest said. “I am genuinely interested in the subject. It’s just ironic that at the College of Charleston I double majored in history and medieval European history, and when I went to Europe, I majored in American history.”

He completed his studies in two years, a year early, after passing proficiency examinations in Italian and Latin. The young priest wrote his dissertation between Christmas and May of this year.

Perspective aside, Father Buchanan’s paper provides valuable information as a preliminary study about Catholicism in the South and where those people came from, a topic that has not been thoroughly studied secularly, or by the church. Buchanan states that this oversight is because it was rural country and the South has always had the fewest number of Catholics in the United States.

Also, most of the works published in the past were generally confined to biographies.

In his dissertation, Father Buchanan writes that Catholicism was first established in Georgia and South Carolina and came later to North Carolina where it grew even more slowly. For about the first 100 years, 1670-1770, the history of Catholicism is centered around the city of Charleston since there was no other city of comparable size in the diocese until after that period.

Father Buchanan credits Msgr. Richard C. Madden, a diocesan priest and history graduate from the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., as possibly being the only author to approach the subject in detail. Madden wrote an article, “Catholics in Colonial South Carolina, A Record” for the Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1962 in which he covered the period from 1670-1820. Father Buchanan said sources are scarce which makes research difficult.

“Msgr. Madden ran into problems and he was a very qualified historian,” Father Buchanan explained. “He had a full-time position as pastor so he was doing two things at once. Fortunately, I could devote my whole attention to study while assigned at Nativity last summer because a lot had happened in the 20 years since Msgr. Madden did his research. I’m sort of the beneficiary of that. I inherited everything he did.”

To research his work in Europe, Father Buchanan used the archives of the Propaganda Fide, and Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. He went to Spain over Easter and learned that all of the documents of the Spanish Government, including interviews with priests, are on CD ROM in their library. He also used the Jesuit archives, and when he returned to South Carolina last summer, the diocesan archives and the records of the South Carolina Historical Society.

The body of the dissertation is divided into four sections: first, the period of Spanish activity which lasted from 1526 through 1670; and second, the end of the Spanish domination and the establishment of the English colony at Charleston in 1670 through the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763. The third part covers the end of the British rule in the Carolinas and Georgia and the repeal of anti-Catholic legislation between 1763 and 1783; and the fourth section discusses the development of early American Catholicism in the Carolinas and Georgia after 1783 and up until the establishment of the Diocese of Charleston in 1820.

“In the years between 1670 and 1770 there was almost never a priest here unless he was passing through,” Father Buchanan said. “It was much freer for religion after 1770.”

He also wrote two appendices. The first is a list of the libraries and archives consulted and the second is a biographical guide to Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston (the Carolinas and Georgia) active before 1820. Buchanan found the names in the vestry records of St. Mary’s church in Charleston between 1806 and 1823. Spanish, Irish and French names appear frequently in those listings.

“The vestry records are probably the largest single source of information on Charleston Catholics before the establishment of the diocese,” Father Buchanan writes.

He also consulted the “Diurnal” kept by Bishop John England between his arrival in Charleston near the end of 1820 and late 1823.

One of the surprises Father Buchanan ran across in his archival research was the discovery that, between 1670 and 1770, there was a large Catholic population in South Carolina, slaves from the kingdom of Angola, Africa, who were not allowed to practice their faith. They had been enslaved by the Portuguese who brought them to Barbados and sold them.

“Except for the slaves who were sent to Florida which was Spanish, they lost their Catholicism,” he said.

Another note of interest the priest related was that the Spanish governing in Florida decreed that any slave that escaped the English could come to that state as long as they worked for four to six years and converted to Catholicism.

“Over 100 years, there were maybe a couple of thousand who made it and many were already Catholic,” Father Buchanan said. “It was very interesting to see that. As far as we can tell, Catholics have been in South Carolina since the 1520s, at least passing through.”

Father Buchanan also found similarities in the diocese of the past compared to the present.

“The clergy shortage is not new, but historical,” he said. “We have more priests now than there ever were, but we have more Catholics too.”

The fraternity of priests is much closer in the present. Early priests seldom saw their peers because they were so spread out. Buchanan found that also affected the way the faithful were ministered to; lay people acted as pastoral administrators when they did not have a priest. Bishop England traveled the diocese and when he found a group of Catholics he would always try to get a priest there. He encouraged people to stay in touch with their faith and subscribe to the United States Catholic Miscellany. He’d even gather people in a town meeting and speak to them.

“That’s early ecumenism,” Father Buchanan said. “Bishop John England and Bishop Patrick N. Lynch did the most for Catholicism in the state.”

A copy of Father Buchanan’s paper will be placed in diocesan archives. He has no plans to publish it saying that it is not a complete work.

The priest is now happy to be back home. Father Buchanan is stationed in Florence and has been assigned to a parish in Dillon and Marion.

“Rome was wonderful but you miss the United States,” he said. “If I were ever to do further studies for a doctorate I will stay in the U.S. Although, I would have to do research in England, France, Austria and Ireland because seminarians were sent there in the early history of the diocese.”

If he follows up on this work, Father Buchanan will write a history of the Diocese of Charleston in two volumes — from 1520 to Bishop Lynch covering the whole province of Atlanta, which was the old diocese, and the second volume would cover Bishop Lynch to Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler.

“But that could be 10 or 15 years down the road,” he said.

Father Buchanan would like to compile a history of all of the parishes in the diocese. Parishes can send their histories to him at St. Anthony Church, P.O. Box 5327, Florence, SC 29502.