Christian Brothers help rebuild parish community

NORTH CHARLESTON – They are the Congregation of Christian Brothers, but we know them as the Irish Christian Brothers, educators of countless thousands of American Catholic youth. Seven years ago, they came to St. John Church in North Charleston to assume a different role.

“As a result of going back to the roots of our foundation, as Vatican II asked us to do, we discovered that our founder was into a lot more than education,” said Christian Brother Edward Bergeron, parish life facilitator of St. John.

What Blessed Edmund Rice was into was helping the poor. The wealthy County Cork shopkeeper sold his prospering business in 1802, donating the proceeds and dedicating his life to service in the Catholic Church of Ireland. Now, according to Brother Bergeron, Rice’s order has expanded to meet the needs of the universal church. While most Christian Brothers are providing schools with important role models as teachers like Brother Spencer Tafuri, who lives in community at St. John, others are not.

Brother Bergeron, for instance, is the administrator of the parish. Brother Leonard A. “Tony” Quinn is the director of religious education and youth minister at the same parish. Their impact since their arrival in 1996 has been extraordinary.

“The Christian Brothers are a very special group,” said Carole Anne White, principal of St. John School. “They have given life to the parish.”

St. John and its parochial school needed life once the U. S. Navy base locked its gates, one of which is directly across from the parish campus. The base downsized its thousands of well-paid workers for two years and closed for good in April 1996. The poor neighborhood where St. John is located got poorer, and the parish smaller. But the people of North Charleston love the place, according to the sacramental pastor who works with the Christian Brothers.

“Their devotion to the parish is unbelievable,” said Father Ernest E. Kennedy, who celebrates three weekend Masses at St. John. “The brothers have an openness to the people and to their needs. This is a new experience for them and for us, and it’s evolving. But they deserve high marks for what they do.”

Father Kennedy said that the 165 families who worship at St. John now contribute more every week than the budget for the parish demands, and capital improvements are underway. Brother Bergeron agreed that the spirit of St. John is high.

“We sort of turned a corner after our 70th anniversary in 1999. We’re still working at how this predominantly white parish can remain a beacon of hope for the predominantly poor, black community around it,” the Christian Brother said.

Marie L. Studemeyer, president of the parish Ladies’ Guild and a parishioner of St. John for 51 years, thinks the brothers have had a major hand in renewing the parish and school.

“They are good fellows with a compassion for people. When the base closed, we didn’t have a priest for a long time. These brothers came in there and just picked us up. They’ve really been a blessing to the parish,” Studemeyer said.

The base property has been retooled and now houses a number of private companies. That hasn’t helped St. John much, although the parish does serve the Border Patrol facility there and AmeriCorps, Father Kennedy said. The priest said the parish has an eye on the Noisette Project, which is an environmentally sound housing development planned for base land. Once those houses start sheltering families, parish fortunes should advance.

Even if that should happen, the Christian Brothers of North Charleston will continue to serve the poor of the area and manage the parish. They have become known within the Christian Brothers order as the New Street Community, named after the first established order house in the slums of New Street in Waterford, Ireland.

The New Street Community will continue to follow in the tradition of Blessed Edmund Rice, who was granted a papal indult and instituted his Brothers as the first Irish order of religious men in 1820, the year the Diocese of Charleston formed under Bishop John England. The order came to America in 1906 and opened its first school in 1909 in Harlem. John Cardinal O’Connor, the late Archbishop of New York, spoke of the Christian Brothers’ tradition at St. Patrick’s cathedral in 1996: “(Blessed Rice’s) legacy, his spirit, is so alive in the United States today…”

And it is obviously alive in North Charleston. Said Brother Bergeron: “I’m hoping to retire, if I ever do, right here.”