Church of the Nativity reaches its 50 year landmark

CHARLESTON — The Church of the Nativity celebrated its 50th anniversary April 5 with cake and light refreshments in the parish hall.

Father S. Thomas Kingsley, administrator, said they hope to have a more elaborate celebration in the fall with Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, but for now they decided to keep it simple since the anniversary fell on Palm Sunday.  

Nativity was founded in 1959 by Bishop Paul J. Hallinan, who decreed that Blessed Sacrament parish be divided “in order to provide more adequately for the spiritual welfare of its members.”

Father Theodore T. Cilwick was the first pastor assigned to the church, which had about 1,400 members in the beginning. It was dedicated by Bishop Hallinan on April 10, 1959, and Father Cilwick celebrated the first Mass that same day.

Some of the original parishioners said they remember how Father Cilwick would cut the grass around the church himself, and his living quarters were actually part of the school, which was built in 1960.

The priest is 93 now and resides at the St. Joseph’s Residence for Retired Priests. Father Kingsley said Father Cilwick’s long-term memory is still sharp and they looked forward to hearing his stories at the anniversary bash.

As part of the festivities, a montage of photos was displayed. Father Kingsley said he enjoyed seeing what members of the church looked like over the years.

Another photo that promoted warm memories is of Msgr. Robert J. Kelly holding an umbrella over Mother Teresa. It was taken in 1982, when Blessed Teresa of Calcutta visited Charleston and spoke in the rain to a crowd of 9,000 people at Johnson-Hagood Stadium.

It was during Msgr. Kelly’s tenure that construction of the current church began. For Nativity, this was a landmark event.

Jim Hayes, who has been a member since 1966, was on the church building committee, and he recalled how eager everyone was to start.

As their self-imposed deadline approached, funds were still short by about $35,000. Rather than delay construction, Hayes said a number of people signed up for a line of credit that could be used should the funding not come through.

“It just shows you how anxious the parishioners here were to have a church,” he said.

Construction started in 1985, and Terry Harris, who has served as church secretary for 30 years, joked that the entire staff was almost deafened by the concussive sound of the pile driver pounding pilings into the ground.

“It was like mini earthquakes all day,” she said.

Less than four years after the church was finished, with Father Joseph G. Maher as pastor, Hurricane Hugo ripped off the copper cupola and caused $150,000 in damage.

Hayes said people joined together to clean the storm debris and mop up the water damage with Father Maher.

Many parishioners recalled how strong their community outreach was following the devastation of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Harris said piles of lumber, roofing supplies and nails were stacked at the church as volunteers helped those in need.

“It was just exciting and wonderful and you felt like you were doing something to help and it kept us busy and helped get us all through it,” she said.

Nativity has seen its share of wonderful and strange events in its 50 years.

Harris described the time that the Ladies Guild was cleaning up after a bake sale and discovered a newborn baby in a box on the back steps of the rectory. She said they called the Department of Social Services and many people expressed an interest in adopting him.

“I think about that all the time and I wonder what ever happened to that child,” Harris said.

The baby on the doorstep is a classic story, but church members also talk about Nativity’s involvement in social and crisis ministry.

Even though they are smaller now with about 650 households, which is the result of the growth of churches on Folly Beach and Johns Island, parishioners are still very involved in outreach.

Father Kingsley said every church has needs, and he could make a list of material things the parish could use, but said meeting the spiritual needs of the people is what it is all about, and having the ability to do so is all he truly wants.

On the 50th anniversary, Father Kingsley said, “This is a time to remember our roots and recommit ourselves to carrying on what people started 50 years ago.”