Evangelizing with a Catholic Church on wheels



This is the second in a series of articles on some of the men and women who have used their God-given talents in uncommon ways to bring the Good News of Christ and his church to rural areas of South Carolina.

At age 44, Father Patrick Walsh came south in 1949, sent by his Dominican province, to travel the region leading parish missions, novenas and retreats, as he had done earlier in Michigan and Kentucky. He was given residence at St. Martin de Porres Church in Columbia. His mission and retreat programs took him through the Carolinas and Georgia during most of the year. But in the summer he joined a diocesan priest, Father Patrick Quinlan, who had begun a rural evangelization program in Williamsburg County two years earlier. Together they sought to introduce the people of South Carolina to the Catholic Church.

They traveled rural areas to meet people at crossroads in a truck that Father Walsh had outfitted as a Motor Chapel. Father Walsh had been inspired by seeing street preachers, particularly the English members of his Dominican order who preached in London’s Hyde Park, and by a chapel in a train car he had seen in the 1920s, used by the Catholic Church Extension Society in the Western parts of the country. Others had used altars mounted on trailers, but Father Walsh’s was the first full chapel. The secondhand vehicle was a cab-over-engine model used as a parcel delivery truck before its conversion to more angelic uses. The Motor Chapel of Christ the King and their travels were financed through Father Walsh’s annual begging tour of the Catholic Northern states and through a mailing list of friends and family he long used for fund raising.

The efforts of the two priests were part of a loose organization called Outdoor Apostolate, comprised of priests from six dioceses and six orders (including Redemptorists, Paulists and the dioceses of Richmond and Raleigh) who would meet to exchange ideas for reaching the unchurched by using radio, pamphlets, and street preaching. Several of these men, including Steve Levin (later bishop of Oklahoma) would even settle themselves on a rural county’s courthouse steps and preach to all in hearing range.

Father Walsh’s primary apostolate was to introduce the church to the rural people, most of whom were African-Americans, by inviting them to the showing of a movie about the life of Christ. Each person got a tour of a genuine Catholic Church, albeit with wheels. The interior of the bus was made as churchlike as possible, with eight pews, stained-glass windows (including Jesus, Mary and the four evangelists), and an altar with daVinci’s Last Supper painted below. The truck mounted its own public address system — two large loudspeakers mounted on the separate cab-forward roof — and two movie projectors.

Each summer, groups of four to six Catholic college students and seminarians would spend a three- or four-week tour accompanying the two fathers as they traveled to a different rural crossroad where they stayed for a week. In 1950, making use of a trailer, eight summer helpers actually had two Motor Chapel teams on the road. The students would go door to door, visiting as many as 900 houses a summer, to invite the residents to come to the Motor Chapel at the crossroad, see a movie about the life of Jesus, tour a church, and pray together for faith and love.

The summer program’s primary appeal was to the poorest of the poor, people who had not only ever seen a Catholic church, but who also could not afford the money needed as a tithe to join the established Protestant churches of the area. Many had never seen a movie; most had never met a Catholic, and some had never set foot in a church of any kind (let alone Catholic and on wheels). When their audience arrived, the small group of missionary priests and students would show the movie and guide their guests through this small example of a “genuine Roman Catholic Church.”

In most areas, they had little hope of conversion of people they would only see for a week or less. Instead, Fathers Walsh and Quinlan sought to bring a welcoming image of the Catholic Church to all people, many of whom would probably join the waves of migrants to the cities, North and South, in search of work. The priests hoped that they might turn to the church in their exile from home as a place, first of refuge, and then of faith.

In the fall, the two priests would switch their routine. They would travel the circuit of state and county fairs in the Carolinas. The fairs were usually open for two weeks, one for whites and one for African-Americans. Father Walsh would make use of the skills that he learned watching barkers on Coney Island in his youth. They would use the Motor Chapel as a showpiece, as well as their transport, when headed for a fair, packing in a large movie screen and a large stack of canvas chairs. After paying $100 for their spot on the midway, they would set up a 50-seat chapel in a tent. Some families would pull their children past, but the kids would sneak back later. Filling the tent, the people got to see a real live Catholic priest without horns or tail. They were led in the Our Father, heard a Hail Mary and received one or more pamphlets (during the fair for African-Americans, the pamphlets always included one on the lives of black saints, including the four African popes). As the fair closed for the evening, Father Quinlan led an actual prayer service, attended by the roustabouts, clowns and other fair workers —about the only place you might find Catholics in the rural South in the ’40s and ’50s.

If Father Walsh did a good job as the barker working to lure in a crowd, they could get 300 to 500 people a night (and once drew 1,000!) to walk through the real live set up of a Catholic Church, stained-glass windows, statues, altar and all, a real exotic for a Southern Baptist crowd. That is what the two priests and their student helpers were up to, showing the non-Catholic Southerners, black and white, that we are a prayerful, open, church composed of loving followers of Jesus Christ. In this way their ignorance of, and prejudices against, Catholicism might be eased. Thus, later in their lives, if the opportunity arose, they might be open themselves to entering the living church, rather than just a converted bus or a side show tent.

The Motor Chapel program remained in operation for more than 10 years, covering as much as 30,000 miles a year, including side trips to state and county fairs in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. It was seen annually by thousands of non-Catholics at the fairs, where hundreds of thousands of leaflets were distributed over the years. The county fair display included a sign over the chapel/truck’s doublewide rear doors that proclaimed: “Visit this Catholic Chapel. See and hear the truth about the Catholic Church.” A sign beside the tent headlined: “Have you heard lies about the Catholic Church? Ask for the truth here. Free religious exhibit — walk thru. Let us answer your questions about religion — ask the priest.”

Worn out after 12 years on the road, the Motor Chapel was dismantled in 1961. The painting and windows were used in Father Quinlan’s crossroad chapels; the truck itself was left abandoned in the woods.

The Motor Chapel on the road and the barker/priest in the midway both served the same purpose: to attract an audience. The sight of that was a puzzle; entrance was free, and curiosity brought the people into contact with what Father Walsh would label “the expositor of the faith,” to hear the Good News of a loving Christ and a true description of the Catholic Church, which otherwise they would never have encountered.

The programs did not set out to make converts, at least directly. They were meant to make Catholicism known and understood. Long-range gains for the church could only be hoped for. But some of the results did come back to the leaders’ ears, often years later. Father Walsh learned about a group of nine converts some 30 years after the event.

The main impact of the effort of the Motor Chapel’s work on the midway was summed up by an encounter, which one of Father Quinlan’s seminarians still remembers from the Charleston County Fair. A young man came up to him and said: “this booth proves that you Catholics are not a secret clandestine church of evil the way we have always been taught.”

Father Patrick Walsh, a member of the Dominican Order of Preachers, is still alive and active at 95 years old. He lives at St. Dominic Church, in the heart of Washington, D.C., where he was ordained 72 years ago. Today is the order’s oldest member. He is also the source for most of the information in this article. When interviewed after his 95th birthday, he was adamant in pointing out that he lives in a retirement home, not a nursing home, and that he would be happy to return to South Carolina if Bishop Robert J. Baker needs some experienced help. He worked with the Motor Chapel and the Springbank Retreat Center from 1949 until 1958. Born the youngest in a large family, one sister became a nun, a brother became a Dominican priest and two brothers became lawyers. He still tells the story that his father, a city fire chief and daily communicant, would say, “two kids to keep me out of jail and three to keep me out of hell.”

Father Patrick T. Quinlan, a priest of the Diocese of Hartford, Conn., was loaned to South Carolina to serve the people of the rural south in 1946 and stayed in that work until his death in 1971. He was, among many other things, the founder of the diocesan Catholic missions in Williamsburg County.

Jim McLaughlin is a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel on Folly Beach.