Father Gallagher eases plight of Catholics in Charleston



September: To educate myself and others in the work of the Gospel. Luke 10:1-10; 9:3-5

In this Jubilee year of prayer it is appropriate to take a look back at our history and see how the very prayers which we offer today have been fulfilled in our past. During this month of September we focus on the need to educate ourselves and others in the work of the Gospel. It is a prayer which we may easily see lived in the lives of those who have gone before us and handed on the faith. Of the many priests who contributed to the early growth and development of Catholicism in the Diocese of Charleston, Father Simon Felix Gallagher stands out as one who labored for nearly 30 years to educate others and in the process brought about a greater cooperation between Catholics and members of other religions in the city of Charleston.

Father Gallagher was a native of Ireland who came to the United States as a missionary in 1793. At the time the only bishop in the country was John Carroll of Baltimore. Archbishop Carroll accepted Father Gallagher and sent him to serve the Catholics in Charleston as pastor of St. Mary Church, the first Catholic church in the Carolinas and Georgia. There he was received as the third pastor with great enthusiasm. In a short time Father Gallagher emerged as a leading figure in the religious and academic life of Charleston.

Since St. Mary’s was a relatively small congregation, they were unable to provide for the financial support of a pastor, so Father Gallagher joined the faculty of the newly founded College of Charleston in order to lighten the financial burdens of his parish. He was well qualified to hold a teaching position, having finished from the University of Paris before coming to the United States. At the college Father Gallagher gave lectures in logic, mathematics, and natural philosophy and was described by one of his students, Hugh Swinton Legare, as “the most eminent classical teacher of the day.” Legare went on to become the attorney general of the United States after finishing from the College of Charleston. Father Gallagher served in his position at the college for most of the period between 1793 to 1810 and was president of the college for a period of three years (1800-1802, 1809-1810). He is often credited by historians of the College of Charleston with being the one who “more than any other gave the institution a reputation for sound scholarship.”

As a prominent and educated member of the Charleston society, Father Gallagher was respected by people of many different religions. This was a drastic change from the hostility and misunderstanding often experienced by Catholics who had first come to settle in the city of Charleston. Legal legislation against Catholics in South Carolina in the past had generally followed the pattern of such laws in England and could be traced back as far as 1697 with the passage of an act designed to settle the question of the French Huguenots in Charleston. The act read in part “that all Christians which now or hereafter may be in that province (Papists only excepted) shall enjoy the full, free and undisturbed liberty of their conscience ….” This injunction was repeated in subsequent legislation over the next 80 years even though the laws against Catholics for the most part were “inoperative for want of subjects against whom they could be enforced.”

Prior to the American Revolution anti-Catholic legislation seems to have been created and most strictly enforced in the colonies at those times when Britain was at war with Catholic countries in Europe. Between 1720 and 1820, the golden age of the city of Charleston, this situation existed about half of the time. Even during periods of relative peace there was an attitude of ‘cold war’ which easily made for a city fearful of Catholics who might side with the enemies of the city. These fears were enforced by the prejudices of prominent citizens of the colony whose opinions would often enough lead to stricter legislation or the enforcement of lapsed legislation on religious matters. In Charleston one frequently heard voice in religious disputes was that of James MacAlpine, probably the first music teacher in Charleston, who, according to his obituary, “looked upon himself as the champion of the Protestant religion on this side of the Atlantic, seriously believing that the Papists, particularly the Jesuits, were continually plotting his destruction, and impressed with this belief he never went abroad without his pocket pistols or other private arms.”

Once the Spanish had been effectively driven from South Carolina around 1763 and the English presence firmly established, the Anglican church was also established with the governor at its head, though practically speaking it was the church wardens and vestries who actually governed the church in ordinary affairs. In 1706 the Anglican church was officially established in Carolina and 10 parishes were erected, and despite legislation which protected them, the establishment was viewed with consternation by the large body of dissenters in the colony. Nevertheless there were a number of dissenting congregations founded not long after the Anglican establishment. Within a few years Anabaptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Congregationalists, Huguenots, and eventually one of the largest communities of Sephardic Jews in the colonies all prospered in Charleston. Thus, Charleston was one of the most religiously diverse of all the cities in the British colonies. The only exception made to this religious diversity and general atmosphere of tolerance was the pointed exclusion of Roman Catholics.

However, the new attitude of respect shown toward Father Gallagher was also extended to the growing population of Catholics in the city of Charleston. Although he was very active in the academic life at the College of Charleston, it was nonetheless the spiritual life of the Catholics of Charleston that remained his primary concern. Under his guidance the parish of St. Mary’s was able to replace what was described as a ‘ruinous’ wooden church with a brick one which stood until the great fire of 1838 destroyed it along with many other buildings in the city. Father Gallagher was also able to unite many of the Catholics of Irish descent by establishing the Hibernian Society which continues to this day.

Unfortunately there were several difficulties which arose during his service in Charleston. It seems that Father Gallagher has become so popular among some members of the parish that the board of trustees of St. Mary’s rejected an associate pastor who had been sent by the archbishop of Baltimore to assist Father Gallagher. When the lay trustees claimed the right to appoint or dismiss their own pastors, Father Gallagher sided with them and the archbishop was forced to put the parish under interdict, forbidding the celebration of Mass until the situation was resolved. It was nearly two years before Father Gallagher and the trustees were reconciled to the church and the interdict was lifted.

When the Diocese of Charleston was created in the summer of 1820 the first bishop, John England, took measures to ensure that the schism did not break out anew and assigned Father Gallagher to the parish of St. Augustine, Fla., in August of 1822. After serving for a brief period there, Father Gallagher moved to New Orleans and finally on to Natchez, Miss., where he served in another St. Mary’s Parish, which did not fall into schism. He died in Natchez in late 1825 but was not forgotten when his obituary appeared in The Southern Patriot published in Charleston on Jan. 14, 1826. Despite the difficulties which arose during his service in the Diocese of Charleston, Father Gallagher was able to effectively educate many in the work of the Gospel and promote a greater understanding and cooperation between Catholics and people of other religions in Charleston.


Father Scott J.A. Buchanan is administrator of St. Ann Church in Holly Hill and moderator of St. Mary Church in Summerton.