By NANCY SCHWERIN
NORTH CHARLESTON On its 70th anniversary, St. John Church has enjoyed for most of its years a windfall of good fortune, and in recent years has overcome a string of crucial setbacks. To commemorate 70 fruitful years, 50 for the school, parishioners and students, past and present, came together for a weekend of old friends, old stories and a glimpse of the future.
Over the course of the weekend, event organizers expected between 300 and 400 people to take part in the festivities, which started with a dinner and dance on Friday, April 16. Volunteers and students worked Thursday and Friday setting up the schoolyard with a giant tent, booths, flowers, and a “Hall of Memories” with old photos and memorabilia from the school and parish. “People made a beeline to find their old friends among the pictures,” said Christian Brother Edward Bergeron, pastoral administrator.
On Saturday visitors came and went, walking through the “Hall of Memories,” playing games at the carnival, taking part in the silent auction, and filling up on barbecue from the pig roast. The school’s youth group managed the carnival booths.
“We really have a wonderful bunch of kids,” said Kitty Erickson, a parishioner with two children at the school. “People really bend over backwards to help out here.”
Under the “big top,” where lots of eating was going on, the noise level rose as friends and family caught up on time passed. The flowers that filled the tent on Saturday and particularly on Sunday were arranged by a St. John’s parishioner, Terry Hawkins. At the liturgy on Sunday the tent in the schoolyard was transformed into a virtual garden of Eden with flowers spilling over from huge arrangements hanging from the ceiling and from a Shakespeareesque facade that served as an altar. The setting was perfect for the occasion as Father Ernest Kennedy led the Mass-goers on a journey down the road to Emmaus.
When it was time for the Gospel, Father Kennedy stepped out from behind the podium, “please sit,” he said, and looking out onto the congregation, told the Scripture message from memory.
“Father Kennedy tells the Gospel like a story. Kids sit with their chins in their hands and follow him back and forth, listening to every word,” said Brother Ed.
After recounting the tale, Father Kennedy, said “My heart is overjoyed at the sight of you. What do you say on a day like today. The words that grabbed me were these: Stay with us.” As he referred to the disciples pleading with the Lord to stay, which he did; he turned around and joined them in the breaking of the bread.
He said that what really connects us is the love of Christ. “When you go home, don’t tell your loved ones just that you had a great time, but that you have seen the spirit of Christ and it’s alive here on this campus, in this church. That’s what we want to send home with you the spirit of God. He wants us to stay with him. For he is truly with us.”
The church and school have taken several hard hits in the last 10 years that contributed to a less stable community Hurricane Hugo, the Charleston Naval Base closing, and losing their pastor.
Hurricane Hugo not only left behind damaged property, but took with it memories, as old photos and memorabilia were destroyed.
With the base closing the number of parishioners was cut in half school attendance by more than half. Staff members were also lost as many were Navy wives. These two setbacks left in their wake significant damage to the budget.
With the third strike, the parish was down, but not out.
Soon thereafter, three Christian brothers from the northeast were searching across the southeast for a community to settle in. It was an afterthought to come to St. John. After finishing early in the Savannah Diocese, they arrived in Charleston and were sent to St. John.
Previously on their journey they met a priest in Venice, Fla., who said to them “you can come here, and we’ll put you to work, but we don’t really need you … look for a community that feels the most abandoned.”
At St. John they met with Pat Cummings, a long-time parishioner, who had taken over many of the everyday duties during this transition. Oddly, the first thing she told the brothers: “We really feel abandoned.” As the brothers stole glances at one another, they knew they’d found home.
They arrived to take their post in February of 1997,”just when we were hurting the most,” said Chris Erickson. Since then they have fought to get back on track, significantly reducing the budget and rebuilding the community.
“They (the Christian brothers) attract people,” said Pat Cummings.
“It’s a great, great community and I find that it runs the gamut,” said Brother Ed, who relishes the diversity of the community. While there are a lot of older folks there, a significant number of young families are coming back to the area, he explained. “There are some really exciting things coming up.
“There’s a certain point where you let go of history and move on.”
This group has stood the test of trials, but they’re building momentum and gaining strength, once again, as a vibrant community.