Florence Kaster dedicates life to rural evangelization

KINGSTREE — The Gospel calls upon all of the Lord’s disciples to spread the good news. The duty of evangelizing is not limited to priests and religious. Most of us lead lives that only allow playing a supporting role, but for one long-term lay resident of Kingstree, more has been asked and more has certainly been given.

Twenty-five years ago, to inaugurate its first national award for outstanding service to the home missions, the Catholic Church Extension Society asked four of the most famous churchmen in America, including the president of Notre Dame and Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, to select the recipient. These eminent men did not select a member of a religious order or a missionary to far-away Native Americans. They selected a laywoman in rural South Carolina. Florence Kaster, now 82, has dedicated her life to answering the Lord’s call to serve.

Kaster was born in Pennsylvania in 1922. Her parents were very religious, and the family recited the rosary every night. She recalls crying when storms prevented them from walking the five miles to church on Sunday.

Kaster believes that the key to faith in the world is to practice it at home. It must have worked for the Kaster family. Her siblings are all active Catholics.

In her 20s, Florence moved to Pittsburgh to work. Members of the Grail Movement, a lay organization founded in Europe, spoke at her parish about the need for active participation of the laity in the church. Through the group’s training center she received an education in lay ministry.

The following year, she went to Connecticut to help her sister, who was expecting a child. Her pastor suggested that she call Father Patrick Quinlan, a pastor in Brookfield, not far from her sister’s home.

Father Quinlan needed help in his position as Connecticut’s Catholic Rural Life Movement director, as well as with his planned study of the nationwide problem of rural counties without churches.

Kaster became Father Quinlan’s administrative assistant, first in Connecticut and then in Iowa, when he served for a year as the Rural Life Movement’s national director.

Father Quinlan left for South Carolina in 1946 and began serving at St. Ann’s in Kingstree. His parish spread over more than 900 square miles, but had only 40 members.

Father Quinlan set three goals: to serve St. Ann’s parishioners, to introduce the church to this portion of the rural South, and to bring the word of God and some social support to the poor farmers. His third goal was accomplished by creating a catechuminate program — with Kaster’s help.

She arrived in Kingstree in 1949. At first, she found it a very lonely place for a young white Catholic Northerner far from her family. The families of black farmers and sharecroppers, who were most of her charges, had no knowledge of the Catholic Church. While most white people were friendly, the Ku Klux Klan staged efforts to make the county seem as hostile as it had been before the Civil War, when it was illegal for a Catholic to stay overnight within the county’s borders. Burning crosses by St. Ann’s small chapels and makeshift classrooms, and occasional rifle shots whistling overhead in the dark, had the desired effect on her.

Many nights she cried herself to sleep. But one night, she had a vision: Jesus put his arms around her and said, “You only need me.” That ended the tears.

Kaster led charitable, educational and religious programs, gave out clothing, conducted classes, and led prayer programs that varied from rosaries to May crownings.

The rural poor whom Kaster found when she arrived were mostly African-Americans and none of them were Catholics. Most people walked or rode horse-drawn carts. Mobility was limited, so to be effective, Kaster went to the people.

Old country stores, trailers and even a nightclub were converted into classrooms and chapels. Kaster traveled in an old station wagon covering the many miles between them, stopping at homes to visit the sick, teach about Jesus, or lead the rosary.

For more than 30 years, Kaster taught classes three days a week for young children and three nights a week for high school students, mostly non-Catholics. As she told a reporter 25 years ago, the young people she worked with “were wonderful, but often unguided — everyone seems to be afraid to teach standards of morality, and these young people want to be guided.”

She also served the parish as council member and bookkeeper, assisted the local Aftercare Program for former state hospital patients, developed and led a local Teen Club, and provided support to a senior citizens organization.

Into her 80s, Kaster continued to serve the community in several roles, delivering Meals on Wheels, driving seniors needing transport to the doctor, and leading a small prayer group.

Early this year she suffered a fall, but though not in the best of health herself, she brings support to other seniors and helps with the upkeep of St. Ann’s.

And while many of those who first learned of the faith from the work of Father Quinlan and Kaster have moved on, she still hears from some of those whose Catholic roots, first watered in Kingstree, continue to grow.