By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. (Mt 13, 31-33)
BLUFFTON – Faith, family and future could be the motto of St. Andrew’s Church where a small parish has exploded with growth over the last five years to become one of the diocese’s larger up-and-comers.
Where, once upon a time, there was no church, no resident priest, and sacraments celebrated only once a year, the founding Pinckney family nourished a faith that was a legacy for generations to come. St. Andrew’s has grown to the point of bursting at the seams. Plans are also underway to build a new church just up the road, St. Gregory the Great. The larger church will accommodate the rising number of Catholics moving to the area, which is located about six miles outside of Hilton Head Island in what Father H. Gregory West, pastor, calls the “bottom corner pocket of South Carolina.”
Church history credits the teachings and writings of Bishop John England for the conversion of the Bellinger family from whom Eustace Bellinger Pinckney descended. He and his wife, Mary Martha Porcher Pinckney, donated the land and built the first church in Pinckney Colony called St. Mary’s in the Woods.
The chapel was dedicated in 1922 by Bishop William T. Russell. Mass was celebrated whenever a priest could visit. By 1932, a new, larger church was built on the site by the Catholic Church Extension Society as a gift from Wilhelmina Wegman in honor of her husband, Andrew, from Rochester, N.Y. The new church was dedicated by Bishop Emmet M. Walsh on April 10, 1932. St. Andrew’s received canonical status of parish in 1960 and was appointed its first pastor, Father John Simonin.
Over the years, the church structure has changed from wood to brick, and stained glass, a new altar, and an organ were added. Developments continued up to the 1980s, and St. Andrew Parish saw new faces but remained small.
In 1994, the Sun City Hilton Head development began nearby with plans for 17,000 new resident retirees by the time it is completed in 2012. The influx of people has spawned more developments. Plans are also underway for a new campus for the University of South Carolina, a major medical park with nursing home and assisted care facilities, a new hospital, additional residential areas for approximately 28,000 residents by the year 2020, retail centers and several public schools.
“This is probably the fastest growing parish in the diocese,” said Father West.
He was assigned to the parish and its “90 souls” in July 1995. He lived at St. Anthony Mission in Hardeeville and drove 100 miles back and forth each day to say Masses. The Bluffton church had two services each weekend and one organization, the Altar Society.
“It soon became evident that this is where I needed to be because this is where the growth was taking place,” Father West said
Today, St. Andrew’s boasts 1,200 parishioners and over 25 organizations including men’s and women’s clubs, R.C.I.A. and Catholic Youth Organization and ministries ranging from outreach to the sick and dying to Project Rachel. It also has a website (http://www.rc.net/charleston/okatie/index.html).
“The people were excited to see life,” Father West said.
So much so that an anonymous donor built the rectory, and the pastor moved onto the property in November 1997. Three staff members were hired: a director of music and liturgy and a pastoral administrator and parish secretary. The office was so crowded that they joked “you had to go outside to change your mind.”
Masses are also standing room only. It is so crowded some days that people stand in the doors. West reports that several hundred locals have to go to churches on Parris Island, Hilton Head and Beaufort. He even added a sixth Mass after Easter to try to accommodate the demand.
“The first weekend attendance went up 100 people,” he said. “I don’t think people really know what’s happening here.”
The new church, St. Gregory the Great, a name chosen by Bishop David B. Thompson and not by Father West, will better house the ever-increasing faithful in the Bluffton and Okatie areas. It will be located on 63 acres of land fronting U.S. Highway 278. The $3.2 million project will include plans for an elementary and high school and an 820-seat church, a parish center, and administrative space. The first building will be completed around the year 2001.
Bishop Thompson chose the name St. Gregory the Great to honor one of the most important figures in the ancient Church, Pope Gregory I, pope from A.D. 590 to 604. He was the first monk made pope, leaving the Monastery of St. Andrew which he founded in Rome. He was a champion of the poor and is credited with many reforms in the early Church (Gregorian Chant is named for him). He sent the first missionaries to England under the leadership of St. Augustine of Canterbury.
When St. Gregory Church is complete, St. Andrew’s will become a chapel for daily mass and small weddings or funerals a bittersweet change.
Mary O. Pinckney Merrick has been a parishioner at St. Andrew’s her whole life. She recalls priests becoming part of the family and attending nearby Camp St. Mary’s as a child.
“We were such a close family church for so long,” she said. “For years and years, on Sunday after Mass you would sit around and visit with relatives.”
The boom of people has “taken quite a bit of adjustment,” she said, but the family and other longtime parishioners welcome the newcomers with faith. The only disadvantage she can see in the new church is a lack of closeness.
“Some of the parishioners have more of a problem adapting to growth, but that all depends on if you get involved and get to know people,” she explained. “It has been a rewarding experience to be able to communicate with so many Catholics in the area. We used to be the small minority.”
Catholics are quite possibly a majority faith in Okatie County Father West estimates that 40 percent of parishioners come from Sun City Hilton Head. In Bluffton, the town has given approval for construction for 28,000 new homes over the next 30 years. The population is projected at 40,000 by 2020, surpassing Hilton Head Island.
“That’s a whole lot of people coming very fast,” Father West said.
Mary Coffey was one of those newcomers. She was initially a reluctant parishioner who was drawn into the southern hospitality of the St. Andrew’s family. She moved from Long Island, N.Y., to retire in Sun City. She was unhappy and wanted to leave, so she paid a visit to the church for some inspiration.
“The church was locked, and I started walking down the road and I think God turned me around,” she said. “Father West came up and said hello. I told him I wanted to leave. He told me to stay one year, and if I was still not happy, he would help me pack. I have now been here three years.”
Coffey has embraced her new parish and her pastor; she is a eucharistic minister, lector, and serves on the welcoming and greeting committees and is Father West’s number one cheerleader.
“This is the friendliest church I have ever been in,” she said.
Like Coffey, Charlotte Adler is an active parishioner. She and her husband moved from Canton, Mich., to Sun City. When he passed away, Adler found great comfort in St. Andrew’s. She also serves on several church committees saying: “It is so great to be able to participate in the life of the church.”
“This is the first time I have felt part of a church family,” added Claudette Sarsfield, a parishioner for three-and-a-half years. “I used to just pass by, now I participate and have watched it grow.”
She foresees a small loss of the intimate air of St. Andrew’s but believes they “will always have that nucleus, you just have to get involved.”
Jan Feiner, her husband Gene and sons Thomas, 17, and Daniel, 7, are Bluffton area residents who cherish the family atmosphere.
“This parish fills a void for young families,” she said. “There are so many grandparents and retired people who miss their kids and they just adopt our children as grandchildren. We have been here for six years and really enjoy it. We are looking forward to many more years to come.”