By PAUL A. BARRA
RITTER — The 175th anniversary Mass of St. James the Greater began with its famed Gospel choir leading a stirring rendition of “We Have Come This Far by Faith.” The hymn represents the history of the faith community that has come to be known as Catholic Hill. It is a history unlike any other in the church.
The anniversary Mass was celebrated by the bishop of Charleston and eight other priests and was the culmination of a celebratory weekend. In his homily, Bishop Robert J. Baker told how his earliest predecessor, Bishop John England, founded the parish in 1826 for Irish plantation owners in the area and their slaves. A short while later, three prominent women, Harriet Bellinger, Susan Bellinger and Mary Pinckney, converted to Catholicism and brought their servants with them to the faith. The parish grew and thrived until 1856, five years before the Civil War began in Charleston Harbor, when the story of Catholic Hill turns bizarre.
The church building standing at what was then known as Catholic Crossroads burned down and the white members sort of faded away, at least from recorded history. And so did St. James. Unbeknown to the world-at-large, however, the slaves and eventually former slaves went on practicing their Catholicism alone. They were led, according to local lore, by a man named Vincent of Paul Davis, whose descendants still worship at St. James. For 40 years they worshiped in obscurity, without a priest, without a church, without acknowledgment. A peripatetic diocesan priest discovered this small, active Christian community of former slaves in 1897.
Father Daniel Berberich stayed to minister to the people of Ritter and built a worship space. That was replaced in 1935 by the current picturesque church and schoolhouse. A Charleston man and history buff discovered the place himself while touring area plantations last year and volunteered to write and photograph a booklet about Catholic Hill for the anniversary.
“I came out of the dark green swamps and there was that wonderful red church,” William J. Kanapaux said. “I had to stop and find out about them. I sat out here (in the cemetery) with the ancestors and asked them how they acquired a faith so deep. Like the Jews in Exodus who wandered the desert for 40 years, these folks stayed here 40 years until the church came back and found them.”
Bishop Baker agreed with Kanapaux, saying that “the former slaves were left on their own, with God’s help. They were abandoned, but had humility and belief in God. This is a story of faith.”
Today, the parish is small, located in the country near Walterboro, just off the Ashepoo River, which flows southeast some 20 miles to the Atlantic Ocean between Beaufort and Edisto Island. Its beautifully proportioned red shingle-sided church sits beneath drooping oaks on a winding lane.
The pastor of St. James is Father Paul F. X. Seitz, who the bishop referred to as “a dedicated pastor.” Father Seitz has served both St. James and St. Anthony in Walterboro for six years.
The faith that sustained the people of St. James for so long is still evident in the core of parishioners who keep it alive, according to pastoral associate Franciscan Sister Kathleen O’Farrell, including the parish council and the choir. Sister O’Farrell’s special ministry is to St. James.
Many parishioners leave Ritter for employment opportunities elsewhere, she said, but many come back. One who returned after decades in New York was Barbara Brown Buchanan.
“I love this place,” Buchanan said. “My roots are here, and this is where I got my faith.”
She said that youngsters of her generation were steeped in the faith by lay people such as Ernestine Montgomery Washington, who taught sacramental preparation, waxed the floors of the old schoolhouse and functioned as both janitor and principal. Another famous layman was Joseph Abram Brown, whose son Deacon John Brown was honored at the anniversary Mass. Bishop Baker called Brown “one of the great deacons of the Catholic Church.” Deacon Brown was ailing during the anniversary Mass and was replaced on the altar by Deacon Jim Johnson of Florence.
Also participating beneath the restored Emmanuel Dite mural “St. Peter Claver Greeting Slaves in Cartagena” were two priests from Florida, one from Ghana, and former pastors Fathers John Simonin, C. Alexander McDonald and Victor Seidel. Father Ron Cellini and Father John Dux also helped celebrate the 175th anniversary, along with Sisters Mary Barnea, Alice Cassidy and Marjorie Lupien, who served the parish in the past. Sister Barnea, who was at St. James for 18 years, said, “I left my heart here.”
Kanapaux wrote a poem for the occasion, the last stanza of which summarizes the fabled history of the parish of St. James the Greater: “This, then, is our heritage and our legacy./ In bondage we were converted,/ in freedom we were forgotten,/ in faith we were discovered./ We are the faithful of Catholic Hill,/ we are God’s people forever.”
The parish is trying to raise funds to expand the red schoolhouse into a parish community center. Donations can be sent to St. James, P.O. Box 933, Walterboro, SC 29488.