Traditionally black Catholic parishes see growth and renewal

COLUMBIA — February is Black History Month, traditionally a time when the achievements of black Americans are studied and remembered.

It can also be a time, according to Father Paul Williams, when black Catholics in South Carolina can reflect on their history and focus on some goals for the future.

Father Williams, vicar for African-American Catholics for the Diocese of Charleston, has been pastor of St. Martin de Porres in Columbia since 2002.

In that time he has been working to enliven the spiritual life of the parish, as well as increase the presence of the 258-household congregation in the spiritual and moral life of the community.

Before coming to St. Martin de Porres, Williams was pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Greenville, another parish that has historically served a congregation that is mostly African-American.

Many of South Carolina’s traditionally black Catholic churches were started during the years of segregation, when blacks could not worship freely with whites in most churches.

St. Martin de Porres, for example, was founded in the 1930s after a group of black Catholics in Columbia appealed to then-Bishop Emmett M. Walsh for a space of their own in which to worship.

the time, they attended Mass at St. Peter Church on Assembly Street but sat in a separate space from white parishioners.

Martin de Porres, like many of the other historically black parishes in South Carolina, was originally run by an out-of-state religious order. Until 1997, the Dominican Fathers ran St. Martin de Porres.

In the past few decades, however, most of these parishes have gone from being affiliated with specific religious orders to being run by the Diocese of Charleston itself.

That, Father Williams said, has offered black Catholic communities in South Carolina new chances for growth.

In 2006, he would like South Carolinians to know that many of the state’s traditionally black Catholic parishes are experiencing growth and renewal.

“Some of these historically black congregations are doing quite well — they’re very much healthy and alive,” he said. As examples, he cited the recent groundbreaking for a new church building at St. Martin de Porres, as well as enlargements of the sanctuary at St. Anthony of Padua to seat 300 people.

He also mentioned plans to construct a new church building at St. Mary Church in Greenville.

One of Father Williams’ biggest goals for St. Martin de Porres — and one he would like to see met in other traditionally black congregations — is to make black Catholics more prominent in social ministry and in activism for issues such as the pro-life movement.

“Pro-life is one major issue we are trying to get more involved in, and one where we need to see more of a presence by black Catholics,” he said.

He has been impressed in recent years by the work of groups in the Midlands such as Birthright, which provides help to women in crisis pregnancy situations.

“There are a large number of black women who take advantage of Birthright services, but we also know that there are also a large number of black women who get abortions,” Father Williams said. “Our goal is to help change that.”

Williams said that he would like to see black Catholics get more involved in promoting the importance of social and moral issues to the legislature.

One of St. Martin de Porres’ longest running social ministries has been to people in prison. Father Williams said members of the congregation have quietly been carrying on the ministry for more than 25 years.

Parishioner Frank Hertz currently leads the ministry at the church.

Father Williams said one of the things the black Catholic community in South Carolina also has to be proud of are the men it has sent into training for a religious vocation and those who have joined religious orders.

A key focus for black Catholics, he said, is to reach out to both non-Catholics in their communities and black Catholics who have lapsed.

“We’ve encountered a lot of people who say they used to be a member of a Catholic church, but they just stopped going because of irregular marriages, or because they just got lazy and stopped going to church,” he said.

One of the focuses in the near future for St. Martin de Porres is to look at evangelization and spiritual outreach.

“We want to reach out to others and strengthen the community we already have,” Williams said.