New church for St. Martin de Porres

COLUMBIA — A cold wind didn’t prevent more than 100 people from gathering outside St. Martin de Porres Church Feb. 5, many of them wearing yellow plastic hard hats on top of warm hats.

The hard hats were symbolic of the historic event about to take place — the groundbreaking for a new church building for the more than 250 families who make up this predominantly African-American congregation.

The ceremony was supposed to start at 10:15 a.m. but was delayed slightly, and some people waiting outside got the crowd started in a chant of “Let’s get it started!” Their exuberance spilled over into the ceremony, which combined music, prayer and powerful words from parishioners who spearheaded the fund-raising.

“We have come this far by faith — I want to thank you for making the sacrifices and the contributions you’ve made,” said Frankey House, chairman of the fund-raising committee for the building. “It’s obvious we are going to finally have this new church building and woe to anyone who will get in the way! We have shown everyone we can deliver!”

The new church was designed by Greenville-based architect Keith Marrero and is being built by contractor Michael A. Robitsky. Marrero told the crowd he knew Father Paul M. Williams, the church’s pastor, when he worked in Charlotte before coming to Columbia.

“I’ve known Father Paul for years and followed him here to Columbia for this project,” Marrero said. “I know that this church is going to be a rock on the corner of Oak and Hampton streets, showing people the light of Christ.”

Roland Thomas, the senior deacon at St. Martin de Porres, has been one of the building project’s most active supporters in recent years. Because of illness, he was in a wheelchair during the ceremony, but his wife, Vickie, offered moving words to her fellow church members.

“We have waited and wished and weathered tribulation through the years, and now we know God has heard our cry and brought us together with hard hats and shovels today for a project that is long overdue!” she said.

St. Martin de Porres, founded in 1935, is a fixture in the historic Waverly community of Columbia. The church is located on Hampton Street, adjacent to two historically black colleges, Benedict College and Allen University. The parish became reality after a small group of black Catholics approached Diocese of Charleston officials in the early ’30s and asked for their own worship space in Columbia. During those years of segregation, black Catholics in Columbia worshiped mostly at St. Peter Church on Assembly Street.

The parish’s Catholic school, founded in 1936, provides both academic and spiritual education to a student body of more than 100. Many of the students are not Catholic, but come to the school because of its history and reputation.

The current building, a small and intimate brick structure, dates from the 1930s. Marrero’s plans for the new church include higher ceilings, a larger sanctuary, and a tall, domed steeple that will make the church a focal point in the neighborhood. Toward the end of the groundbreaking ceremony, members of the church choir led the gathering in a moving version of a hymn that had been echoed in the day’s speeches, with lyrics that seemed to accurately describe the St. Martin de Porres journey:

We’ve come this far by faith
Leaning on the Lord
Trusting in his holy word
He’s never failed me yet
O can’t turn around
We’ve come this far by faith!