History of African-American Catholics at St. Peter’s recalled



CHARLESTON — A gathering of two-fold significance was held at 34 Wentworth Street in the Holy City on Sept. 15, celebrating a wonderful heritage as well as an outreach planned to extend long into the future.

The history honored is that of the Catholic’s welcomed to the African-American community that took place there for a century, as the site of St. Peter Parish, a church that eventually branched out to include a school.

The rededication of the Chapel of the Drexel House as St. Peter’s Chapel, in memory of the former community, was attended by about three dozen parishioners eager to retell recollections about their spiritual roots.

Bishop Robert J. Baker asked for reflections about marriages, baptisms, confirmations, or first Communions. One woman spoke of memories of her first Communion at St. Peter’s. She said the nuns would open their convent to the first Communion class and fix them a delicious breakfast. “It will last in my mind forever,” she said.

Another woman spoke of the choirs at the church, saying, “The Christmas programs were the best.”

That type of singing is evident at the service, as the entire congregation boomed out the opening hymn. At the conclusion of the song, Bishop Baker smiled and said, “Now that’s the way I like to hear people sing.”

The bishop urged them all to read a brochure with the highlights of the rich heritage of St. Peter Church and School, and he thanked Mary Giles, Mary Alma Parker, Pamela Strich, and Barbara McKenzie for compiling the archival materials.

A collage of historical photos was also put together by Giles and Strich and is on display on a dining room wall at the facility.

“Did you see anyone you know in those pictures?” Bishop Baker asked the guests at the evening service.

In 1866, Bishop Patrick Lynch, the third bishop of Charleston, took up the vision of his predecessor, Bishop Ignatius Reynolds, of establishing a church for African-Americans. St. Peter Church was established in a building that formerly housed a Jewish synagogue.

In his homily, Bishop Baker touched on that interesting connection, reflecting Chritianity’s early roots in Judaism.

“What is significant in the hundred-year history of St. Peter’s is the strong commitment that the Catholic community in Charleston made to the evangelization of the African-Americans, newly freed from slavery. It was a commitment of man- and woman-power. It was a commitment of buildings and financial resources, which had to be meager at the time. It was a commitment of evangelization through education. It was a commitment of faith,” he said.

Various religious communities came forward to help the bishops in their efforts. The Jesuits sent Father Aloysius Louis Folchi as the first pastor. Father Folchi began a school in his rectory that eventually moved behind the church to a two-story building.

The Sisters of Charity of our Lady of Mercy were vital to the ministry at St. Peter’s, teaching in the school until the Oblate Sisters of Providence began their ministry in Charleston around 1917.

As a result of the school many people came to know the faith and entered the church.

The Holy Ghost Fathers sent Father Ward F. Cleary to minister to the parishioners of St. Peter’s in 1935, and Bishop Baker’s mention of Father Cleary’s name was greeted with smiles and nods among those present at the service. A popular pastor, he was highly respected by Catholics and non-Catholics.

Father Philip J. Haggerty was to follow him, before the community was moved by Bishop Ernest Unterkoeffler to St. Patrick’s as an integrated faith community.

A new convent (St. Katharine’s Convent) was established for the Oblate Sisters at 34 Wentworth Street, where they remained for 31 years, until 1999.

“The history of St. Peter’s is a reminder of the gift the African-American community has given to the church, after receiving the gift of faith from the Lord. The history is a challenge to us today to continue reaching out in a spirit of warmth and welcome to our African-American brothers and sisters. This history documents a success story. It also documents occasional failures on our part to be the kind of Christians we are called to be,” said Bishop Baker.

Most importantly, he added, it documents an invitation to embrace the diversities of race and culture and see them as harmoniously united by Christ in and through his Church, the People of God.

“This is a wonderful history and heritage, and we are honored to celebrate it today,” the bishop said. “Our rededication of the chapel as St. Peter’s Chapel is an opportunity to embrace our past and link it to our present and our future.”

In that spirit the entire Volunteer House was dedicated in memory of St. Katharine Drexel, a great American woman of faith, who had a special ministry to African-Americans and Native-Americans. She grew up in a wealthy Philadelphia family, and after leaving her wealth behind, she founded her own religious community to work with African-Americans and Native-Americans, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She had some of the family fortune available to her to help her efforts, and ministry here in the Diocese of Charleston to African-Americans was assisted by Mother Drexel.

At the rededication service Bishop Baker recognized Sister Naomi, a former teacher at Immaculate Conception School, who is celebrating 60 years of ministry as an Oblate sister this year.

The nun explained that St. Katharine Convent was named for Mother Drexel, who Sister Naomi said paid for the convent. Although the building was originally named for St. Catherine of Siena, it was spelled with a “K.” Mother Drexel was canonized a saint just last year on Oct. 1, 2000.

The volunteer program is an effort to encourage Catholic lay people to take out a year — to “volunteer a year” in service of the church in South Carolina.

“What some priests and sisters did here in a time period spanning 140 years, lay people, working with priests and religious sisters and brothers, are doing today,” Bishop Baker said. “Please pray that our ministry here at 34 Wentworth Street will always reflect the spirit of those great people who prayed here and served here and have gone before us to reap the rewards for a life lived in service of God and his holy people.”

He thanked Father Martin Laughlin and Bill Iglesias, the current and former directors of the program, and volunteers Jim Albert, Andrew Cano, and David Morrison for their various efforts in the community.

“When you and I face our Lord and Master Jesus Christ in the judgment scene described in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, hopefully we will be among those who gave food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty; those who welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick or imprisoned,” the bishop stressed. “In so doing we would have ministered to Christ himself. We would then be among those who Jesus says qualify for entrance into eternal life.”

Restoration of the downtown building took several months. Bishop Baker, in materials handed out to participants, cited the benevolence of South Carolina Catholics, Kevin and Susan Partel of St. Augustine, Fla., and the Helow family and the Warren F. Powers Foundation, both of Jacksonville, Fla., for providing the needed funding.

In his closing remarks, Bishop Baker thanked Virginia Fouche Bolton for her donation of an original painting, “Servant of God.” “It reflects on the greatness and goodness of all who have served in this community,” said the bishop, adding that in the house the artwork will represent St. Katharine Drexel. He also expressed appreciation to the artist for her contribution of numerous prints to the volunteer home.

Bishop Baker also recognized Jeff Brown, the son of Deacon John Brown of St. James the Greater Church in Ritter. The bishop credited Brown for discovering the original hardwood flooring of the building and restoring it to its former glory.

A reception of appreciation for all benefactors, volunteers, and neighbors of the St. Katharine Drexel House will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27.