Father Patrick Quinlan — the apostle of Kingstree



This is the third in a series of articles about the history and people of the church in and around Williamsburg County, a microcosm of the work done by religious and laity to bring the Good News to the people of rural South Carolina.

Father Patrick Quinlan had come to Williamsburg County in 1947 to find a greater field for his missionary zeal, to bring the Good News of the church to those who would otherwise not hear it. And he sought to work among rural people because he saw them as the untapped resource for the faith in America. He had served many years as a pastor in suburban parishes in areas with large Catholic populations. There, the bishop normally found a Catholic neighborhood, then built a parish around them. Father Quinlan did the opposite and sought to build a church to which he might attract non-Catholics. Bishop Emmet M. Walsh, sixth bishop of Charleston, charged Father Quinlan with the “spiritual care of Williamsburg County and its people,” not just its Catholics. Therefore, he saw his duty as reaching out to the uninformed and misinformed, not just his 40 parishioners.

Father Quinlan enlisted the help he needed to start his new apostolate wherever he could find it. During the first year he depended heavily on the generosity of the county’s few Catholics and of his own family and friends. Within three years major help came from a Dominican missionary, Father Patrick Walsh (with his Motor Chapel); two lay catechists, Ruby Murray and Florence Kaster (who was to remain active in the community for 50 more years); and a large number of summer helpers including nuns, seminarians and college students. As many Southerners’ first contact with the Catholic Church, the energetic young people always left a favorable impression.

They used the contacts they had established among rural people by the home visits and the Motor Chapel’s summer tours. The visitors were astonished to find that the vast majority of the people had never even heard of the Catholic Church, or if they had heard, had been told that the church had nothing to do with Christ. The Motor Chapel’s short stay at each location offered a different movie every night — about Christ and the church, with a talk after each movie, followed by a brief prayer service asking for the gift of faith. The sermons always stressed that God loves us, a loving God, not the stern God of fear as they had been led to believe. People came initially out of curiosity (“a church on wheels!”), respect for their enthusiastic visitors, or for charity in the form of medical care and clothes — the missioners found that many children did not go to school because they had no shoes! But most people came back to learn more about Christ. They had no religion; they had never been invited into any church. As one man said, all they knew of religion was “how to sing hymns and clap hands.” Many had never heard of the Ten Commandments.

The Motor Chapel visited each village or crossroad every summer. Father Quinlan then followed up with two year-round programs: mailing information about Christ and the church and weekly religion classes to people with whom they had met. The classes were held wherever his catechists could find space, often in the cabins of the poor. Among a people without cars, his goal was to have chapels in walking distance. And people did walk. Crowds came on foot from five miles around. At first the prayer sites were simply an abandoned store, wrecked garage or, in one case, a former dance hall, rented for five dollars a month. Over the years, four actual chapels were created on rented land with donations and labor from benefactors.

In 1956, additional year-round support for religious, educational and social programs came from three nuns from Buffalo, Sisters of Saint Mary of Namur. The sisters participated in the evangelization efforts, served as teachers in the county’s public schools and ran a clinic on wheels. Local people would be attracted to the crossroad chapels by the chance for free medical care from the nuns, as well as gifts of clothing from Kaster. According to Father Walsh, “Florence was a real servant of God,” the example and teacher for those who sought the faith.

To accommodate the deep religious needs of the people, Father Quinlan created a formal catechumenate program, two years of preparation for joining the church. In the first year the candidate had to demonstrate sincerity in following church practices and studying doctrine, a full year of Mass attendance, careful following of the rules of Lenten abstinence and fasting, and participation in the Christian doctrine programs. These efforts may sound like today’s churchwide programs, but they long predated Vatican II’s creation of the RCIA.

Father Quinlan’s catechumenate had as many as 400 people at a time in instructions leading to admission to the church, the great majority African-Americans. Personal contact and flexibility were the keys to finding potential converts. For example, a man in a wheelchair arrived for classes at St. Ann’s, driven in the back of a pickup truck. Seeing his difficulty, Father Quinlan and the sisters told him that if he wanted instruction, they would come to his house once a week. The first night they arrived at the house to find a family of 12, all interested in learning about the faith. As they organized the family into classes for the adults, teens and young children, other people were attracted to the classes. Over time, this one effort to help the paralyzed man led 50 people to enter the catechumenate. They all came despite the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on the house lawn.

Opposition to their efforts to evangelize black people was a consideration, but it never stopped the priests and their associates. The KKK conducted a campaign against them every spring, burning crosses in front of their buildings, telephoning threats to burn down the chapels, and, on occasion, shooting over their heads, all to indicate they were on the watch against papist efforts to covert the Negroes. But these hate-filled men were always a minority. The local police were protective of the church personnel and most white folks looked with interest, or at least curiosity, at the Catholic efforts. One Protestant Sunday school teacher even brought her class to the chapel at Springbank so they could see how Catholics worshiped; by the standards of the 1950s, that was a remarkable example of ecumenism!

Father Quinlan insisted on high standards for his catechumens. During a visit, Bishop John J. Russell was charmed that the young children of St. Ann sang so well at Mass, most remarkable given that they had to sing in Latin! The eight altar boys all knew their Latin responses flawlessly. When the bishop asked how many of these new members of the church had been baptized, Father Quinlan replied that many of them lived too far away from St. Ann’s to attend Mass regularly; he needed another church nearer to them before they could be baptized. Two more parishes were created: the Mission of Our Lady of Fatima for the northern half of Williamsburg County and in Lake City, to their north, St. Philip the Apostle (originally called St. Philomena).

The social changes affecting the country in this period were acutely felt in the church as well. In 1959, Bishop Paul J. Hallinan, accompanied by Father Joseph Bernardin, came to St. Ann’s to listen to protests from the white Catholics who had supplied so much of Father Quinlan’s early support. They were upset that the pastor had “invited and encouraged Coloreds to come to our church.” The white people, themselves the victims of discrimination as Catholics and as Lebanese, portrayed the difficulties with which white Southerners were accepting the presence of African-Americans in equal situations. They alleged being harmed by the social and economic pressure brought against them by the white Protestant majority because they went to church with African-Americans. The two church leaders were polite but insistent that segregation was clearly in conflict with the teachings of Christ.

Our Lady of Fatima and the rural chapels, however, continued to serve as centers of faith to meet the real need of most of the black people. Kaster was parish administrator and taught religion weekly to children at all four locations. Despite the fact that only 18 of them were Catholic, Father John Egan, pastor in 1969, pointed to the young people’s interest and attention as proof of the continuing potential of this apostolate.

The catechumenate program outlasted Father Quinlan; he remained its inspiration even after his death in 1971, having spent 24 of his 49 years as a priest serving the people of Williamsburg County. But five years later, the diocese was forced to close both Our Lady of Fatima and the crossroad chapels. The lessening number of priests meant there was no one to serve such small churches, while automobile ownership, even among the rural farmers, meant that there was no longer a real need for the chapels close to home.

How successful were the long efforts of Father Quinlan and his associates? When he arrived, there were only nine Catholic families in the county. Today there are 49, even though the county’s population remains nearly stagnant. There is no resident pastor at either St. Ann’s or St. Philip the Apostle; the full-time presence at the church in Kingstree consists of two Felician nuns, Sister M. Johnna Ciezobka and Sister Susanne Dziedzic, who offer educational programs for poor children and run a clothing and food center. Florence Kaster, in her 70s, lives nearby and still devotes her time to the church and community.

In part, the small growth in the church membership reflected a broader population movement: Fathers Quinlan and Walsh had set out to introduce Catholicism to the people of the region, rather than to expect large numbers of conversions. They hoped that by this introduction the people would lose the opposition they had been raised with to the church and thus might be open to the faith at some later time in their lives, perhaps after joining the large scale migration to the cities. That the programs succeeded in ending fear and loathing of Catholicism is clear; what is not clear is its number of converts. The area, populated largely by African-American, held poor opportunities for young people and led to a steady exodus, just as Father Quinlan had presumed it would. Some may have joined Catholic churches in the cities, but many may have been swept up in the exclusively black Protestant churches they found in their new homes.

But other Catholics have arrived; most of the area farm workers are migrants from Mexico and Central America. St. Philip’s in Lake City is the base for an active outreach to the Spanish-speaking community. In the next issue, Deacon John Keily and the parishes serve this new community.

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