Catholics fleeing revolution settle in Charleston



August: To build structures for justice and peace in the world. Micah 6:8

Between 1720 and 1820 the city of Charleston was one of the most prosperous on the eastern coast, having trade connections with Europe as well as the islands of the Caribbean, the ties being particularly close with Barbados, from which many Charlestonians had emigrated. Major events in those areas of the world were bound to have an effect upon the life and society of the city, so when one such event occurred it had a lasting impact upon the entire city and above all the Catholic population.

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it brought great changes to France and her colonies. Some were positive, but many were not. Among the negative developments of the revolution was the Civil Constitution of the Clergy which was passed in Paris on July 12, 1790. The constitution was strongly anti-Catholic, and it forced thousands of French clergy into exile rather than take the oath to support the new constitution. Most made their way to Britain and other European nations while a smaller number came to the United States. The revolution and the exiles were repeated in French colonies in the New World, most notably in Santo Domingo, the modern nation of Haiti, which was predominately Catholic.

Over the course of a little more than a decade (1791-1804), the island of Santo Domingo was shaken by a series of revolutions that were in turn essentially a “distorted extension of the French Revolution.” Thousands of the inhabitants of the island, both black and white, were murdered in the series of slave rebellions and counter-revolutions that broke out. Hundreds of white aristocracy were guillotined during the reign of terror that followed the rebellions.

The Catholic population of Charleston grew rapidly as French refugees flooded into the United States, taking up residence in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, Wilmington (Delaware), New Orleans and numerous other cities. By 1805 the entire white population had either been killed or had fled Santo Domingo. About 500 of these refugees made their way to Charleston, most eventually settling in the city and becoming members of St. Mary’s Parish. They often took jobs as actors, dressmakers, musicians, dancing masters, painters, and teachers, and soon were able to publish a newspaper, Le Patriote Francais, which was surprisingly anti-Royalist in tone. The presence of these refugees did a great deal to break down the historic fears of many toward Catholics, and from an ecumenical perspective it gave Catholics and those who were not Catholic the opportunity on a local level to build structures for justice and peace.

The refugees from Santo Domingo were also all Catholic, and over the course of a few years their numbers nearly doubled the Catholic population of Charleston. Given the history of anti-Catholic sentiments one might suppose that the refugees would not have been particularly well received, yet by this period Charleston society had undergone a revolution of its own and was openminded enough that in February of 1794 the new Charleston Theater had a benefit performance for the refugees. Similar benefit performances were given by the St. Cecilia Society on Dec. 17, 1793, and March 6, 1794. There were even several of the refugees themselves who became members of the society and orchestra, raising the quality of the cultural life in Charleston.

In time several of the Catholics who had fled Santo Domingo became prominent citizens of Charleston. The architect Louis J. Barbot was a descendant of a French family that had fled Santo Domingo and several of his buildings, like the Spring Street Methodist Church and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, survive in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina. There were a number of artists among the French émigré population of Charleston who added to the artistic life of the city: Jean Claude Imbert, Monsieur Du Suaw, David Boudon, Monsieur Geslain, Jean Baptiste Rossetti, Michael Samuel de Bruhl, and the miniaturist Charles Fevret de Saint-Mémin, whose wife had had estates in Santo Domingo. Not least among these was Joseph Pierre Picot de Limoelan de Cloriviere, who fled France after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Napoleon. Cloriviere is known to have been active painting miniatures, of which at least nine are preserved, most of them were probably commissioned during the seven years he lived in Savannah before entering the seminary in Baltimore and eventually returning to Charleston as a priest.

The influence of the French refugees upon the attitudes of the people of Charleston was clearly manifested when war broke out between France and Britain in February of 1793. There was considerable sympathy toward supporting the French among Charleston society as well as on the part of merchants. The city had established its own Jacobin club which was affiliated with the club in Paris, and the citizens had great admiration for the new republic which seemed to have been established on the model of the American republic.

It was not long after the arrival of the refugees from Santo Domingo, and with the accounts they gave of the revolution there, that the local government began to doubt the wisdom of lending Charleston’s support to the French cause. When reports reached Charleston of the mistreatment of Lafayette, who was a venerated hero in Charleston, the little enthusiasm for the French revolutionaries which remained evaporated altogether. In 1794 an attempt was made by Francis Huger, a Charlestonian studying in Vienna, to rescue Lafayette from prison in Austria. Years later in 1825 when Lafayette returned to visit Charleston he was given a widely enthusiastic welcome.

As a whole the refugees had been “welcomed into the local society for their musical and artistic talents, but they also brought their fears. As late as 1820, there was one elegant old French lady in the madhouse who had lost her mind in the holocaust when her husband and children were butchered.” The already strained atmosphere of living in a slave-holding society was further aggravated by the events that had only recently occurred in Santo Domingo. The revolution on the island “send a distinct chill of horror through the southern white community. The rise of a black republic, with a black Napoleon, Toussaint L’Overture, was an ominous example.”

On May 5, 1798, there was a mass meeting of the citizens of Charleston at St. Michael’s [Anglican] Church to discuss rumors of an attack from Santo Domingo. These fears only grew stronger over time, especially when they seemed to be justified by actual slave uprisings such as the one planned for the middle of June in 1822 led by a free black, Denmark Vesey, who had reportedly worked aboard a schooner sailing between Charleston and West Indian ports, including Santo Domingo. By 1828 at least one writer in the Southern Review, Judge Harper, explicitly compared the state of South Carolina to Santo Domingo and the abolitionist movements at work in the North to Les Amis des Noires in France, an organization with a number of contacts in Britain and America. Harper confidently declared that “We are not St. Domingo, nor do we intend to be … We are sovereign” hinting at the eventual solution of secession that South Carolina would take in 1860.

It is known that among the refugees who fled Santo Domingo there were many black Catholics, some of whom were slaves themselves. Perhaps the most well known of these was Pierre Toussaint who lived and worked in New York and whose cause for canonization is now open. We do not know with any certainty how many black Catholics came to Charleston following the revolution on Santo Domingo, but it is quite likely that at least some did come.

When Bishop John England came to Charleston in 1820, he found that there were a number of black Catholics, both slave and free, scattered throughout his new diocese. He attributed their faith to the fact that many of them were servants of Catholic families who had fled Santo Domingo. He took a sincere interest in them, opening a free school and saying Mass for them each Sunday at the cathedral. The school, the first one for free persons of color in the United States, was forced to close in 1835 when there were threats of violence if it did not.

Despite the difficulties, the presence of the French Catholic refugees from Santo Domingo, both black and white, did a great deal on a local level to help build structures for justice and peace for Catholics in Charleston.