BY TERRY CREGAR
GREENVILLE—A mortuary isn’t typically associated with celebrations, but for parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Church, it’s simply a bridge to better times.
Since March, the 240 families at this small parish on Greenville’s west side have been celebrating Mass at a nearby mortuary’s chapel, moving aside so contractors can complete a $550,000 expansion and renovation project at their church on Gower Street.
They hope to move back into their worship space by midsummer.
“It’s much-needed,” said parishioner Randall Wright, “not only as a church, but also as a community.”
The makeover is long overdue for the 63-year-old parish. The church building and adjoining school are each pushing 50, and parishioners and staff are forced to double-up more than they would like.
“We have to use the teacher’s lounge at the school for confessions,” said Franciscan Father Paul Williams, pastor.
The church launched a capital campaign about a year ago, receiving pledges for nearly half of Phase I of the two-phase project.
The second phase calls for major renovation and expansion of the parish school, a project estimated to cost around $2 million.
Father Sydney Dean started what would become St. Anthony’s in the mid-1930s while assigned as an associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Greenville. He began evangelizing the African-American housekeeping crew at nearby St. Francis Hospital. Sunday Mass was held in the hospital chapel.
That first year, a dozen people were baptized into the Catholic Church, Father Williams said. That number tripled four years later.
The Franciscans bought six acres on Gower Street on the west side of Greenville in 1939 and built a combined church and friary on the site. The first Mass was celebrated there that fall. Bishop Emmitt Walsh of Charleston consecrated the new parish a month later.
The church moved into its current building in 1956, building the structure at a cost of $120,000, Williams said. The upstairs portion of the old church/friary now serves as the parish office.
Father Williams said the $550,000 would pay for expanding the current church’s seating capacity from 126 to 260 and nearly doubling choir seating space. Contractors also will cover the cinderblock walls and exposed metal-pitched roof with wood and stained glass to make the worship space more “inviting,” he said.
Money will also be spent to update the antiquated public address system, and the heat pumps will be replaced with a central HVAC system.
Father Williams said the diocese agreed to the plan with the understanding that the parish would also commit to upgrading the school. It currently teaches 114 students in three kindergarten classes and grades first to fifth, Father Williams said.
“What (the diocese) is asking us to do is renovate the school and enlarge it to better serve the current enrollment,” he said. “The school hasn’t had any substantial work done on it since 1956, and before it gets any worse, we want to fix it up.”
In addition to the current education wing off the main church building, the school uses two outdated portable classrooms and two classes are held on the lower floors of the church office.
Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker, principal, said the facility needs a library, an upgraded cafeteria, a gymnasium and her own office. The cafeteria now doubles as a music and art room.
“We need space; we need personnel resources; we need capital resources, and the ability to do it all,” Sister Noecker said.
The school currently has seven classroom teachers — one teaching both fourth- and fifth-grade students — along with four full-time teacher assistants, she said. There are also a number of volunteers both from within and outside the parish who come in on a routine basis.
“One of the things I feel good about in accomplishing here is providing employment, especially for minorities, and whenever possible to help them get an education,” Sister Noecker said.
Wright, a lifelong St. Anthony’s parishioner and a tuition advisor at the school, said the improvements would aid the church in broadening that effort.
“It would allow us to widen our outreach,” he said.
Father Williams said a committee that includes parishioners, Catholics from the region and possibly even the superintendent of the Greenville County School District will meet this month to begin talking about funding options for the school renovations.
“Hopefully, from that meeting we will be able to form a committee that will start looking into the raising of funds for the school,” he said.
Catholic Extension Society, a Chicago-based missionary support agency that helps small, struggling parishes, has promised $65,000 to assist St. Anthony with the church project.
“I wrote a grant to them, and we got word in March that they would help us out with construction costs,” Father Williams said.
The parish is working with the diocesan Office of Stewardship and Mission Advancement in possibly developing a stewardship program that would aid the parish in supporting its day-to-day operations during the extensive work on the church and school.
“We’re going to be working with the stewardship office to start a sacrificial-giving program to encourage the parishioners to make some serious sacrifices so that they will not only honor the pledges that they made, but also that they will increase their offertory giving so that the church doesn’t fall behind financially,” Father Williams said.
He is trying to balance the obvious needs of the parish against the financial reality of its members. He said the parish can’t burden its membership with both the church renovations and the larger financial commitment that will be needed for the school.
“This is a blue-collar parish,” the pastor said. “The parish doesn’t have any real white-collar workers. We don’t have any doctors or lawyers in the parish.”
One of the few white-collar parishioners, Keith Marrero, owns a firm based a short drive from the church.
Marrero said he is doing the architectural work on the project at no cost to the parish — a way of giving thanks for the talents God has given him and for St. Anthony’s parish.
Father Williams said the parish is still awaiting word from the diocese on a separate plan to build a new church office on the Gower Street grounds, a project that would cost an extra $100,000.