By JIM MCLAUGHLIN
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the founding of the parish in Lake City — St. Philip the Apostle. The parish was founded, like St. Ann’s in Kingstree, by Catholic immigrants from Lebanon and was first called St. Philomena’s. A side effect of Vatican II was a call for review of the rolls of ancient saints to ensure that all could be traced in history; she did not make the approved list, but if you look carefully, you can still trace where St. Philip’s name was superimposed over hers over the church door.
Like so many other small parishes in our state, the lack of priests has left St. Philip’s without a resident priest; it is served by Oblate Father Jerome A. Ward, who comes from Sumter 30 miles away on Sundays to say Mass here and at St. Ann’s in Kingstree, 16 miles to the south. In addition to piling on mileage, the shortage of priests has left key roles to be played by deacons, nuns, and lay people throughout the state, particularly in small towns and rural communities.
St. Philip’s has been blessed with the leadership of a permanent deacon, Deacon John Kiely. He is based at St. Philip’s but also serves as the parish life facilitator of St. Patrick’s, 20 miles to the east. The churches have 60 registered households between them, but, like the parishes of the Grand Strand and the sea islands, their actual parish communities swell greatly in the summer. Unlike those parishes, however, Kiely’s summer parishioners are not tourists. They are migrant farm workers, coming to pick the crops destined for America’s tables. The majority of these summer residents are Spanish-speakers, born in Mexico or elsewhere in Central America, along with a scattering of South Americans. Many flow into his parishes every summer, following the crops. And many have trouble with English and feel much more comfortable in a church with Spanish language and Hispanic ways.
Lake City has developed a permanent population of Hispanic families; about half of the year-round parishioners are Hispanic. But in summer the community is far larger; the Spanish services on Sunday evenings draws 50 in winter, but up to 250 in summer. Kiely speaks enough Spanish to offer the homily and readings at Mass if the priest doesn’t speak Spanish or at a Communion services in the priest’s absence. The parish’s Chorale Grupo supplies music in Spanish. The number of people taking Holy Eucharist has been limited. After the death of Father Scott Buchanan last winter, there has been no priest available who can hear confessions in Spanish, and many people won’t go to Communion without first going to confession. There is also a rosary and Novena service in Spanish each week, and each week he is available Father Henry Burke, a retired diocesan priest, offers his services for Mass and confession.
The deacon is assisted in his ministry by a nun from Mexico, Sister Guiliermino Delgato of the Community of Las Hermanas de Jesus Sacramentodo. She trains Hispanic catechists, assists in sacramental programs, and visits door to door in an effort to bring the faith to the people, in the image of the evangelist efforts of Father Patrick Quinlan and Florence Kaster when the parish was founded. The sister does marvelous work among the migrants and others, but her stay is threatened by financial problems as adequate funding is hard to come by in these poor rural parishes whose collections do not meet monthly expenses.
Kiely manages a clothes closet and a food pantry at St. Philip’s. The pantry serves as a major resource for migrant worker families, particularly at the beginning of summer as more workers return for the farm labors. During the summer months the parish has a community supper every Sunday night in the parish hall attached to the church, after the Spanish Mass. That Mass would be even more crowded, but the lack of transportation leaves many Hispanics unable to get to church. A local Baptist church has taken advantage of this by providing them a bus to their services — going so far as to paint the bus with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and a sign in Spanish that says, “Come to Mass at our church.”
Unlike St. Philip’s, the Spanish-speaking community in adjacent parishes like St. Anthony’s in Florence are composed of permanent residents, professionals or skilled workers.
St. Philip’s is in the middle of an agricultural area heavily dependent on migrant workers for the summer months. The area used to have larger permanent populations, mainly African-American, and the early evangelical efforts of the church in the area were aimed primarily to meet their spiritual needs. But the poor opportunities for year-round work led to a steady exodus, particularly after several industrial plants closed.
This June, the two churches had 18 children confirmed by Bishop Robert J. Baker. Most of these were children who had begun classes while in Lake City last summer, and their families came back again for work this summer in time to complete their preparation.
Kiely was ordained a deacon in 1978. Before “retiring” to Myrtle Beach, his employment in the aerospace industry had moved him from jobs in the diocese of Trenton to Los Angeles, San Diego to Long Island and finally to Camden, N.J. He continued his work as a deacon in his new diocese with each move. Unsure of how portable his ordination would prove to be on his first move, when he arrived in the Los Angeles suburb of San Pietro he went on a Wednesday to the local pastor to ask what would be involved in getting permission to serve there. The pastor’s response was “be ready to preach this Sunday.” So much for the question as to whether if you become a deacon can you move.
The huge parish in Los Angeles had a very large Mexican-American community. The deacon had taken Spanish in college, 30 years earlier, but he became proficient over time there. As the chaplain in a hospital serving his Hispanic community, he frequently found himself serving as the contact between the Anglo hospital staff and their Spanish-speaking patients. His language skills serve him well in St. Philip’s now — last year the church had 125 baptisms in Spanish, three in English.
When he retired from aerospace at age 65, the deacon and his wife, Ellen, opened a Celtic imports store in Myrtle Beach and New Jersey. He then accepted an assignment as parish life facilitator to St. Philip, St. Ann, and St. Patrick five years ago. Although he frequently stays at the parish house, the Kiely’s reside in Conway.
The Kiely’s example to their children must have been highly blessed. One son is nearing completion of his seminary training for the Diocese of Camden. Another son was working as a shipwright on wooden sailing vessels, including the restoration of the USS Constitution, but three years ago he moved to South Carolina to became a monk at Mepkin Abbey. They have three other children, two married daughters in the North and a son in Conway.
At 73, he will soon face a second retirement from the work he has done so well in so many places, as hospital chaplain, parish deacon, and among the people of the Pee Dee, following in the biblical footsteps of the helpers of the apostles.
Jim McLaughlin is a parishioner of Our Lady of Good Counsel on Folly Beach.