St. Mary Help of Christians in Aiken celebrates 150th anniversary

AIKEN – On July 26, St. Mary Help of Christians celebrated its 150th anniversary as a parish with a special Mass, dinner and dance.

Bishop Robert J. Baker was the main celebrant for the liturgy, and tickets for the other gala events sold out weeks in advance. Nearly 20 fourth-degree Knights of Columbus added pomp and color to the ceremonies.

“Even though we’re a large family now, we still have people in this parish who were here as young folks during the ’20s,” said Walter H. Schumacher, one of the planners for the anniversary celebration. “They remember how small it was then. In 1950 and ’51, we experienced a surge with the bomb plant (the Savannah River Site).”

At the celebratory dinner, each historical period in the church’s growth was represented by a speaker who talked about what it was like then. A young Hispanic man represented the new parishioner.

Music followed the same theme, moving from Steven Foster songs of the 19th century, to Roaring ’20s tunes, to Elvis and onward.

“We decided to go with a DJ to help people get their feet moving,” Schumacher said.

Father James L. LeBlanc, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians, didn’t think his parishioners would have much trouble in that regard: “We are an old parish, but the people are young at heart.”

The entire history of this old parish was written and published as a booklet by a subcommittee of the anniversary committee.

The first pastor, according to the booklet “A History,” was Bishop Ignatio Persico, an Italian Capuchin missionary who later became both an American citizen and a cardinal. He was appointed in 1867 by Bishop Patrick N. Lynch, the third bishop of the Diocese of Charleston.

The original frame church building was destroyed in an 1878 storm and was replaced by St. Claire’s Chapel, whose architect also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, D.C. The chapel still stands alongside the 1905 semi-Gothic main church, two landmarks today in Aiken.

St. Mary Help of Christians Church is noted for its exceptional interior woodwork and its tall, slender steeple. Inside the church is a large and spectacular Madonna and child bronze sculpted by Gustav Dore in 1880. The statue was donated to the parish by the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Harry La Montagne, who purchased it in Paris.

The 150-year-old St. Mary Help of Christians Church in 2003 is a wide-flung campus in the historic heart of Aiken. It consists of the church and chapel, Calvary Cemetery, St. Mary Help of Christians School, the Bishop Thompson Office Building and the St. Angela Family Life Center.

The church was extensively renovated in 2000-2001.

St. Mary Help of Christians offers no less than eight weekend Masses to its community, including a Life Teen Mass on Sunday evening and a Spanish-language Mass.

Father LeBlanc is assisted by parochial vicar Father Gade Show Reddy and two deacons.

The parish enrollment figures now are approaching 1400 families, according to Schumacher.

“We told people that this (anniversary celebration) is the event of a lifetime, and it is. St. Mary’s is a wonderful parish,” he said.