By PAUL A. BARRA
BATESBURG — For every elegant cathedral or mega-church in the Diocese of Charleston there is a counterpart of opposite size and splendor. Many of these mission parishes have no resident pastor and have barely enough income to keep them afloat. Some have been saved by the burgeoning Hispanic population of South Carolina.
St. John of the Cross in this tiny Lexington County town is an example of the changing demographics of Catholicism in the state. It is also an example of the dynamism that can result from a confluence of cultures.
As the 21st century neared, the faith community of St. John numbered perhaps 30 families, some migrants from the north and some local folk. There were not enough children for a full-time Sunday school, nor enough worshipers for a full-time priest. One woman kept the books and did all the scheduling for Masses and other services.
Today, Janet Hayden still does most of the administrative work for the parish. In fact, the official parish administrator, Father Jerry Schwab, calls her his right hand, but the church has two Masses every weekend and was awash with people for confirmation on May 29. Every pew was full, and the only room left to stand was in the sanctuary; an overflow crowd watched through the church’s windows. And the list of confirmandi represented the new mix at the 40-year-old church: Will Hall, John Hall, Jacalin Shealy, Joann Esquivel and Judith Almaraz.
“The Hispanics have saved the parish,” said long-time parishioner Kay Jones. “If not for them, the parish would have folded. They breathed new life into it.”
One Latino who has emerged at the forefront of that new life is Amancio Palma, a peach tree farm supervisor of migrant workers. His family paid for and had built a church bell that sits atop a new belltower o n the West Columbia Avenue side of the church. When the bishop of Charleston came to confirm the youth, he agreed also to bless the bell. Parish leader Jon Hendrix urged Palma to get in front of the crowd so that he could ring his bell after the blessing.
“Amancio said to me, ‘It’s not my bell; it’s our bell.’ That sums up the spirit of this faith community,” Hendrix said.
Palma said: “There is much faith here and plenty of love.”
Parishioners admit that the small parish is in a chronic state of impecunity, since most of the Hispanic members are supporting families back in Mexico on marginal farm wages, but no one seemed too concerned about that aspect of parish life.
“It’s not supposed to be a money-making thing,” Hendrix said. “But we’re making it work.”
The priest’s work may be the major downside of the blossomed Anglo-Latino congregation. Father Filemon Juya is pastor of St. John of the Cross, but is also responsible for a dozen other tiny faith communities. He celebrates six Masses every weekend in five different churches. During the week, he provides priestly services to the ones he can’t get to on Sunday. Some he gets to only monthly. As it is, he is constantly on the road.
“They (the parishes) continue without me with spiritual meetings in small groups. The idea is to go where these people live. Serving them is a particular experience, very positive,” Father Juya said.
Bishop Robert J. Baker called the Colombian native “one of the great leaders” of the Hispanic community in South Carolina. The Bishop of Charleston said that his diocese is not certain of the exact number of Hispanics now worshipping here, but he is
certain that the number is expanding.
“They are maybe one-third or one-half of the Catholics in the diocese today,” Bishop Baker said. “They bring a lot to the Catholic community. The Hispanic presence here is a blessing.”
The bishop pledged continued diocesan support of small faith communities, especially ones that are experiencing growth because of a Hispanic presence. He spoke of negotiations underway to effect an interchange with an order of nuns in Mexico; they would serve Hispanics here and Carolina seminarians and priests would train in Latino culture and language there.
“The story of the Church is evangelization. The DDF (Diocesan Development Fund) enables us to keep these kinds of efforts going. Our commitment, if anything, is growing,” he said.
He greeted the Confirmation crowd at St. John of the Cross in Spanish, prayed the entire liturgy of the Eucharist in that language (“very good Spanish,” Palma said) and preached in English. The Sanctus became the Santo and the Lamb of God became Cordero de Dios. The readings and petitions were bilingual, the hymns in Spanish.
Tony Derrick and his wife, members of St. John of the Cross since its inception 42 years ago, are the sole black family there. They do not speak Spanish. Yet Derrick claims the differences pale in comparison to the unity he feels.
“Everyone in a small parish like this is more closely related,” he said. “Here, this is family.”
Rose Marie Hall, daughter of a founding father, and Jack Marcavage, who moved back from North Dakota, agreed that the parish feels like home to everyone.
“We take care of each other,” Hall said.
Her grandson, Will Hall, 17, a local boy who attends Batesburg-Leesville High School and who speaks with the color of the rural South in his voice, said that he enjoys the challenges of the unusual that he meets at St. John of the Cross: “It’s something new for all of us, but it’s always good to meet new people.”
New people are the new backbone of some tiny mission parishes in South Carolina. They are often proving to be their salvation as well.