By NANCY SCHWERIN.
In this peaceful corner of the world, hospitality and tradition abound. Parishioners, some who’ve known this place all their lives and some who’ve made it their home, share stories and reminisce about days long past and plans for the future.The story of this historic town has been recounted time and again. It never changes, yet remains a fascinating tale. The small community now here, in remembering past leaders, endeavors to uphold the long-standing tradition of faith and conviction that has carved for St. James a notable place in Lowcountry history.
The area known as Catholic Hill was settled about 1820 by Catholics who fled severe opposition to the faith in Charleston. In January 1831, Bishop John England organized the three state districts of Colleton, Beaufort and Barnwell into one ecclesiastical district. The laity unanimously elected the Apostle St. James the Greater as patron of the new district.
St. James the Greater Church was dedicated at the site on Dec. 10, 1833, by Bishop England.
Several plantation owners in the area shared Catholicism with their slaves. Together they worshiped here until one day in 1856 when the church burned to the ground having caught fire from nearby burning fields.
Soon afterward the War Between the States started, and by the end of the Reconstruction, most of the Catholics in the area had gone with the exception of six African-American families. These former slaves still adhered to the faith, which took deep root in their traditions. For 40 years they were left alone to worship.
In 1897, Daniel Berberich, a missionary priest, accidentally discovered the presence of Catholic people in the vicinity of Thompson’s Crossroads (Catholic Hill). He found them still adhering faithfully to the Catholic religion, baptizing and instructing their children as best they could, having prayers in common, reciting the Rosary and singing a few of the Catholic hymns they had learned as slaves.
Father Berberich set plans in motion for a church and school to be built and served the people until 1909.
Various area priests followed Father Berberich in caring for the people of the parish. Currently, Father Paul F.X. Seitz ministers there. During these years dedicated men and women of the parish exercised leadership in preserving and strengthening the faith.
The present church was built in 1935 and houses antiques, memorabilia of long-past ancestors and works of art that tell the story of the people who nurtured the faith in this town.
In the oldest grave in the parish cemetery rests an Irish plantation owner, slave owner and keeper of the faith, who died in 1835. Most recently, Frank Jackson, pillar of the church and backbone of his community, was laid to rest. As Jackson, alongside his peers in the community, taught the love and conviction of the faith to their forebears, so will they teach theirs.
The congregation that gathered on Palm Sunday wasn’t large, but it was strong the voices, the spirit, the presence of God. Frank Washington, a long-time parishioner, participated in the celebration from his wheelchair. A recently completed handicap access ramp allowed his return after weeks of being away.
“Tears came to my eyes to see him going back to church,” said Hubert Finch, who made and contributed the iron work around the churchyard, including the railings of the new ramp. He learned his trade in New York, where he met and married Ethel Murray, who introduced him to Catholic Hill, her hometown. After vacationing there as a young couple, they made it their home in the early ’70s.
Cornelius “Nick” Dorsey, a Marine Corps retiree, made it his home in the ’70s also. His passion and zeal for the people and community is inspiring. He has members of the Marine Corps presently at Parris Island involved in doing work around the church.
Sister Kathleen O’Farrell, a Franciscan Sister of Peace and pastoral associate in Ritter, came to the “hill” a year and a half ago and has thrown her efforts into strengthening the bond among the people, as well as the mortar in the walls.
“Things are coming along,” she said. “I’m focusing on building community among the people, the religious education program, and especially on training leaders in the parish.” The Franciscan is preparing for the future. She is taking a group of parishioners to a week-long program on “Pastoring in African-American Parishes.”
Sister O’Farrell requested funding from her community’s Minores Fund to pay for the access ramp. She also has plans for renovating the parish hall, previously the school, strengthening the choir and hiring a music director.
With the $20,000 the parish received from the Diocesan Development Fund this year, she plans to focus on religious education, maintenance of the parish and the music program. Since 1992, the parish has received nearly $80,000 from the Diocese of Charleston, mainly through the Diocesan Development Fund.
As the walls are strengthened in this country parish, new leaders will emerge, and the echoes of past tales will continue to press future generations onward.