With 60 years of ministry Father Theodore Cilwick reflects on the priesthood

CHARLESTON — When Father Theodore T. Cilwick came to Charleston from New York City, there were more Catholics in his Bronx parish than there were in all of South Carolina.

The Most Rev. Emmet M. Walsh was Bishop of Charleston and masses were celebrated in Latin. The Second Vatican Council was twenty years in the future.

Father Cilwick celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood May 2. He is almost 88 and in good health. A recent cataract surgery has brightened his view of the world. “I say mass every morning and read the breviary. I help out occasionally,” the retired priest said.

He trained as an Oratorian for twelve years in his native New York before becoming a diocesan priest for the Diocese of Charleston, he said. South Carolina was mission country and he wanted to serve as a missionary priest. So, hardships were to be expected.

“Before we built the rectory at Nativity (on James Island), I lived in one room for five years. That’s the parish I loved the most because it took so much of my energy and ingenuity,” Father Cilwick said.

He served at the Church of the Nativity for 13 years, beginning in 1959. Before that, he was pastor of St. William in Ward for six years and at St. Patrick in Charleston for five. Afterwards, he was pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville until 1978, at St. Mary in Georgetown and St. Thomas the Apostle in North Charleston. He finished his active priesthood with ten years of service to St. Mary on Yonge’s Island and Saints Edward and Stephen Mission on Edisto Island. He retired in 1993.

That chronology means that Father Cilwick served thirty years of his fifty years after Vatican II, the sweeping reform of the modern Church; he said the changes then were “book changes.”

“I didn’t have any difficulty adapting,” he said, although he admitted that the loss of Latin as an ecclesial language bothered him.

He was trained in the classics during minor seminary before taking on theology and ecclesiology at a major seminary. He found a common method of communication with foreign priests who spoke no English, he said, and loved Latin as a language.

But the change he feels most these days, he said, is the priest shortage.

“We have people coming here to help from India and Africa. We used to send missionaries to them. Today, the priest has to work a lot harder, sometimes doing the work of three priests,” he said. Still, he is not in favor of ordaining married men to the priesthood to alleviate the shortfall, claiming that the dedication necessary to sustain two vocations would be too much.

“Marriage is a much more demanding career than being a priest. You can’t give the time to serve your people if you have to serve a family too.”

Father Cilwick’s favorite bishop was Bishop Paul J. Hallinan who served the diocese from 1958 – 1962.

“We never realized for some time what a fantastic man he was. He was wonderful at the (Vatican) Council but you don’t hear much about that,” he said.

Father Theodore Cilwick surveys the diocese he served for 50 years these days from a retirement apartment within walking distance of the new St. Francis Hospital in Charleston and marvels at the growth he sees: “It’s amazing how the parishes are growing. Some are bulging at the seams.” There may even be more Catholics in South Carolina now than in Immaculate Conception parish in the Bronx.