The origin of the church in a rural county



Historically, Catholics have been a tiny and restricted minority within the population of South Carolina. As a result, our efforts to reach out to bring the faith to our fellow Carolinians were limited. But this year marks the 55th anniversary of “two unique pages in the history of the church,” organized outreaches by religious and laity to bring the faith to the poorest of the southern poor by preaching, as well as by charity and justice. These efforts, begun at a time when we represented an even smaller minority than we do now, set an example of what we should seek to achieve, in order to follow Christ’s directions to preach the Gospel to the poor, in the 21st century. This is the first in a series of stories about some of the people whose efforts shine on those pages in church history.

A 70-mile trip from the rich Catholic heritage of old Charleston takes you to the small town of Kingstree, the seat of Williamsburg County, South Carolina’s poorest and, at 900 square miles, its largest. Historically, the presence of the church here was extremely limited. Until after the Civil War it was actually against the law for Catholics to live in the county — to obtain residence, all males 6 years old and above had to swear they adhered to the Protestant religion.

Nevertheless, by 1900, nine Catholic families had moved to Kingstree. All were traders who had immigrated from Lebanon to escape economic conditions and political and religious persecution in the Middle East. As late as 1930, these families, along with two other women — one white, one black — formed the entire Catholic presence in an area the size of Rhode Island.

By 1909, the community had appealed to Bishop Henry Northrop, fourth bishop of Charleston, to open a mission for them. In response, for two decades the diocese assigned priests from St. Anthony’s in Florence or St. Mary’s in Georgetown to include Kingstree in their circuit. Mass was celebrated once a month, usually in a Catholic home over a dry goods store.

In 1929 this group obtained permission to erect a church, St. Ann’s, which opened in Kingstree in 1931. The wooden church remains largely unchanged today. It was designed by Brother McInerney from Belmont Abbey College and served as the prototype for 10 churches he built throughout the Carolinas.

St. Ann’s remained without a pastor for 15 years, being served every other Sunday by a priest from Florence or Georgetown. That situation was to change after World War II, thanks to a remarkable priest, the pastor of a large suburban church in heavily Catholic Connecticut. Already 53 when he arrived, he spent the next 24 years serving the people of Williamsburg County and its Catholic community.

Father Patrick Quinlan was a multilingual scholar and a graduate of the prestigious American College of Louvain, Belgium. He developed a great attraction to mission work and the problems of the church in rural areas. His bishop appointed him chairman of his state’s Catholic Rural Life Office. In 1946, he was temporary director of the Rural Life Office of the National Catholic Welfare Council.

This introduced him to a troubling statistic: There were 1,000 counties in rural America without a Catholic church. Father Quinlan was moved by the Holy Spirit to make that number one less.

In 1947, the bishop of Hartford gave in to his request to serve five years with the Glenmary Mission band, whose primary role is to serve the rural poor. He asked to be assigned to the poorest of the poor; the Glenmary Fathers selected Williamsburg County.

Over time, Father Quinlan was granted a transfer to the Diocese of Charleston.

The priest arrived in Kingstree in September 1947. He lived in a motel cabin and was the sole charge of a parish large in size, but with only 40 Catholics among the county’s 40,000 people. His only helper was his brother, a retired railway worker, although he found much support from the resident Catholic families.

In an article in the fall “Glenmary Newsletter” he said, “These few members are staunch believers. Their ancestors brought the faith from abroad, cherished it and taught it faithfully to their children against all odds.”

He went on to say he respected the deep religious values held by non-Catholics in the Palmetto State.

His goals were formed by this and by his other early observations of his new home. One resulted from a call he made on a Protestant clergyman. He asked him if he knew of any Catholics that Father Quinlan might contact. The clergyman’s response was: “Brother, you are the first Catholic I have ever set eyes on!” He also discovered that many people thought Catholics did not believe in Jesus and had been told that we boo-ed, not bowed, when we heard the Lord’s name.

Another goal stemmed from his observations of the black community. He saw a people scattered over a huge area, less than 45 per square mile. Most were share croppers with at best a mule for transportation. They had no access to churches, and many had never had the Gospel preached to them.

He deduced that his mission should be threefold: to serve and expand the Catholic members of St. Ann’s, to introduce the church to one of the many sections of the rural South that had no knowledge of the Catholic faith, and to bring the word of God and some social support to the poor farmers. He would accomplish this by creating a catechumenate program, by personal contacts and by recruiting assistants from Charleston, Columbia and the North.

To introduce the church to as many people as possible, Father Quinlan divided the county into districts of 120 or more square miles. He then set out to visit every house on every road in successive districts each year. Later, help came from a Franciscan, Brother Anthony, and three Maryknoll seminarians he had recruited. They were to be the first of many summer assistants, among them at least two college students who later became priests (including Father William C. Burn, then a student at the College of Charleston). These helpers lived in tents and made use of another tent as the first of several Catholic Information Centers. The Maryknollers brought with them a series of movies and 78 RPM records about the life of Jesus, the saints and Catholic beliefs. These “high tech” tools, produced by St. John’s University, were to be a backbone of his programs for many years. Father Quinlan and his assistants called on nearly 700 homes the first summer and 900 more the second. The great majority of people responded favorably to receiving further information about the church by mail.

Father Quinlan’s main year-round help came from a laywoman, Florence Kaster, who had worked for him in Connecticut and came to Kingstree in 1949 to begin a religious education program that was to occupy her for the next 50 years. In 1951, two nuns, Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, joined her. They established a school of religion in the converted garage at St. Ann’s and accredited the two lay catechists, Kaster and Ruby Murray, a black South Carolinian. The summer college help continued to arrive, supplemented for several weeks at a time by members of a lay religious organization who Kaster induced to come down to help with repairs and construction projects, including erecting rural chapels, as well as proselytizing.

In 1949, surprise help in spreading the Good News came from another direction. Father Quinlan lived in a very small house next to St. Ann’s. Among other things, he lacked a phone. One day the police came and told him he was wanted on the town’s phone. It was a Dominican priest, Father Walsh, calling. He had come to Columbia to work in the African-American apostolate. He had learned that a group of priests, known as the Outdoor Apostolate, had been using a trailer set up with an altar to tour rural areas in North Carolina and Georgia. Going one better, Father Walsh obtained an 18-wheeler truck and converted it into a Motor Chapel.

Now he was looking for rural parishes that would buy in on the concept of using his unique vehicle to evangelize large areas. Father Quinlan was his first sales call, and it was a successful one. The two Father Patricks and their assistants were soon in cahoots in pursuit of souls in Williamsburg County and across a broad swath of the state.

Next week: Father Walsh and evangelizing with the Motor Chapel.

Written by Jim McLaughlin, a parishioner at Our Lady of Good Counsel on Folly Beach.