By MARY MARSHALL
ROCK HILL — In the midst of celebrating Black History Month, St. Mary Church in Rock Hill is proud of its rich and vibrant African-American heritage as well as its friendly parish atmosphere. The parish has the same mission today as on July 4, 1946, when its first Mass was said with five adult black Catholics in attendance: to focus on the social issues of the black community.
On Feb. 24, an African style liturgy will culminate the month’s special events as parishioners dress in native attire. The colorful Mass begins with the Harambè, a greeting and libation with 11 lay parishioners cleansing the church and altar with new water, all to the beat of drums.
Just last Sunday, more than 75 members gathered in the ministry center, Bannon Hall, for a town meeting. The objective was to discuss the future growth of the parish as they continue to reach out to the churched and unchurched in the community.
St. Mary’s consists of 200 households — a mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics and other cultures all with a desire to worship in a multicultural setting. They come from a radius of 130 miles to celebrate in a small parish with inviting liturgy, a renowned gospel choir, and warm hospitality.
Today the area is peaceful — successes of integration are taken for granted. But reaching out to the black community in the middle 1940s was outside the norm. Newly ordained Oratorian Father Edward Wahl was about to make history when he received permission to begin an African-American parish in Rock Hill.
Relying on the aid of family and friends in Jersey City and Philadelphia, Father Wahl raised $17,000, which was matched by Bishop Emmett Walsh of the Diocese of Charleston to build a church and recreation center.
As Father Wahl walked the neighborhood streets saying his breviary, he met a young man, James Ramseur. He told him about his plans to reach out to black youth through recreation and suggested he gather some boys to meet at a vacant lot the next day. When Father Wahl arrived, 75 boys were waiting for him. A recreation program was born with a goal of spreading roots for the conversion of youth.
As job opportunities for blacks improved, young people, who previously migrated north, established households in the area thereby changing the focus of the parish from youth to family orientated.
In 1951, Oratorian Brother David Boone arrived in Rock Hill, beginning a remarkable ministry of public life. Whenever strides were made in integration, Brother Boone’s quiet demur played a vital role. He became a maverick as he represented blacks on equal rights issues.
When St. Mary youth enrolled in St. Anne School in 1954 creating the first integrated school in South Carolina, it was Brother Boone and another staff member who transported the children. “Due to constant threats, police warned us to periodically change our route,” the Oratorian said.
An avid supporter of the parish athletic teams, Brother Boone went to city officials requesting integration, becoming the first integrated leagues in the city. However all of this came with a price. “When a barber overheard threats on my life, police began to attend the games,” he said.
Throughout the years, the parish recreation center was a busy place with kindergarten held during the day, elementary students arrived after school and high school students frequented the building from 7 to 10 pm. Fifty to 350 teens attended Friday evening dances. All these programs required planning, implementation and adult supervision. Through the efforts of Brother David, St. Mary’s programs thrived.
The parish established the Crawford Federal Credit Union in 1951 and in the summer of 1960, Brother Boone organized a voter registration and tutorial program. He supported blacks at sit-ins in front of Woolworth’s. In 1972, when black high school students walked out, they came to St. Mary and Brother Boone, who served as their liaison.
“Nothing prepared me for this,” he said. “I had community connections, but we had to work behind the scenes as most could lose their jobs. The blacks working with me endured daily threats. I had to step forward and be the one up front. Living at the Oratory and screening my calls removed me from some of the grief others endured. We knew various groups were out for us. I always kept an eye on my rear view mirror. To this day, I stay away from restaurants.
“I feel good about the progress we’ve made,” he added. “I paid a terrible price in that I lost a lot of so called ‘friends’ because I had different views.”
Today, the parish continues to focus on social justice issues as they serve 30 to 60 people six days a week at their soup kitchen. They have a food pantry and clothing bank. The doors of Bannon Hall are open for civic community meetings. Youth are involved in the faith formation program and RCIC, Rite of Christian Initiation for Children, led by Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity Sister Francis Katherine Saring. The Men’s Prayer Breakfast group meets monthly. The newly formed Young Adults Group’s mission is service to the parish and community.
Brother Boone continues to be the rock of the parish. “We’ve done the footwork; it just continues,” he said. “We’re moving along. Soon we’ll be involved in the diocesan evangelization program, Disciples in Mission.”
Brother Boone is a familiar and welcomed face in the community as he continues to serve on numerous committees and boards throughout the city and state, with the common goal of “representing blacks for better opportunities.”