Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series on black Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston.
CHARLESTON – At the end of the Civil War, Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore, Md., called a plenary council to settle church discipline for the United States and to address the needs of the emancipated Negroes.
“Four million of these unfortunate beings are thrown on our charity, and they silently but eloquently appeal to us for help. We have a golden opportunity to reap a harvest of souls, which, neglected, may not return,” the archbishop said.
So in spite of financial losses from the war, Bishop Patrick Lynch pushed ahead with efforts to provide separate worship for black Catholics under his care, and they responded to his efforts.
Originally known as the “African Church,” the congregation of St. Peter sent Bishop Lynch a joint letter of appreciation for his efforts, which stated, “We know how hard you have labored in our cause; and we beg you to continue to watch over our progress and, with our pastor, to direct our spiritual affairs.”
Father Alois Folchi, an Italian Jesuit, led St. Peter from 1867 to 1875, when the Mill Hill fathers took over. The congregation was critical of their new pastor, writing, “We are convinced after one year’s bad experience that if it be your object to evangelize the lately freed, thereby to build up a congregation of colored Catholics, you will never succeed with the present pastor.”
They wanted to be treated like other Catholics, with a pastor who delivered moving sermons and taught their children the catechism so they could mature in their faith. They also wanted high Mass at the same hour as other churches.
The vestry at St. Peter was composed of hard-working, life-long Catholics. George Coverly was a carpenter, E.J. Boisden a barber, James Nesbit a brick mason and William Mathews a policeman. James Spencer was a porter and his son, James, was a Reconstruction politician and educator who was active in the black Catholic national movement.
Other church leaders, including Pope Pius IX, saw opportunities for evangelization after the Civil War. In 1870, Father Herbert Vaughan founded the Society of the Sacred Heart of St. Joseph, known as the Mill Hill fathers. The Holy Father appointed the order to the American Negro missions. The priests established two missions in Maryland, one in Louisville and one in Charleston.
Bishop Vaughan, of Salford, England, made a brief tour of the South in 1872 and Bishop Lynch encouraged him to establish a mission for blacks in Beaufort, but Bishop Vaughan preferred Charleston.
The Mill Hill missionaries took over St. Peter Church and school in 1875. There were only 20 students, but the missionaries soon saw an increase.
“We have the satisfaction of seeing our church gradually filling up with the colored people. I hear two or three say that the number who attended last Friday for the ‘Way of the Cross’ was the largest that has been seen in the church for three years,” they reported.
The missionaries faced many challenges in Charleston. The climate did not agree with them and they were subjected to yellow fever, malaria and other endemic diseases. They quarreled among themselves over management questions and answers were long in arriving from Baltimore and London.
They also found it difficult to confine their ministry to blacks alone. In spite of this, they succeeded in advancing their core ministry. The growing number of black Catholics pressed the Mill Hill fathers to open a second church in the Neck area of Charleston. Larger numbers of black Catholics now lived in the northern parts of the city and car fare to St. Peter Church was prohibitive. The new church, Immaculate Conception, expanded and established a school.
As the missionaries doubled the number of parishes in Charleston, they discovered there were black Catholics in rural South Carolina who had not seen a priest since before the Civil War. In response, the fathers established a missionary outpost at Bennett’s Point, halfway between Charleston and Beaufort.
Travel to the new mission was a challenge. After a two hour Saturday train ride from Charleston to Jacksonborough, a guide met the priest and they continued down the coast by boat for several hours before they disembarked and walked through the woods for another three hours. Forty people, Baptists, Methodists and a few Catholic men and women, some of whom had walked for miles, waited patiently for his visit.
“I commenced directly with instructions for two hours; after that preparing for baptism those who would be baptized the next morning,” Father Giesen noted.
Mass on Sunday morning was held in a makeshift building. The people had placed four poles in the ground and fixed laths upon them. “I had taken altar linens, etc. with me but was obliged to use for candlesticks two different bottles … It seemed to me nearly the stable of Bethlehem,” he wrote.
The priest slept in the open with his bags for a pillow. In the morning, he was hungry and bitten by bugs, but excited by the work. Father Giesen returned to Charleston on Monday. He visited Bennett’s Point and the surrounding plantations and Sea Islands every few weeks and gradually discovered there were many more black Catholics in Walterboro and Jacksonborough.
The Charleston Mill Hill missions were thriving. One sign of success was the growing school. In 1883, St. Peter School was so overcrowded that Bishop Harry Northrop, who succeeded Bishop Lynch in 1882, urged the priests to purchase the adjoining building.
In spite of cramped conditions, the schools provided a good education to 150 pupils. L.A. O’Connor and Eugenia Gatewood conducted the school.
In October 1884, prizes for scholastic work were awarded to the students. The children provided singing, recitations and declamation for the audience of Bishop Northrop, seven priests of the diocese and black and white well-wishers.
In 1883, the American bishops established a national commission to serve the needs of blacks and Native Americans. This commission appealed for donations from every diocese in the country and allocated funds to dioceses serving blacks and Indians.
The Mill Hill Fathers thought the commission would directly fund their work, and bishops in the South hoped it would provide much-needed support. In Charleston, Bishop Northrop believed he could support black Catholics if they were strictly segregated. He said that having white Catholics in black Catholic churches might diminish the amount he could request from the national commission.
The bishop addressed the issue with Father Leeson, the Mill Hill Provincial in Baltimore. Bishop Northrop then insisted to the rector at St. Peter Church that it must be for blacks alone and stressing that the priest should make the church financially independent. The black church would then be supported in part by contributions from black parishioners and from the national collection for blacks and Native Americans.
The Mill Hill fathers agreed. Since whites paid pew rents in the black church and not in their own parishes, the Mill Hill fathers insisted that all pews in all churches be free, eliminating a source of friction between the Charleston clergy and the English missionaries.
Bishop Northrop continued to pressure the missionaries and their parishioners and threatened ‘energetic measures’ if his wishes were not obeyed. They did their best to turn away white Catholics, but to no avail.
By 1892, the Mill Hill fathers withdrew from the Charleston diocese, in part because of declining numbers of priests. St. Peter Church, Immaculate Conception and the stations at Bennett’s Point and Walterboro were still active, but now under the authority of the regular clergy.
Krebsbach is the corporate librarian at Santee Cooper. She is researching and writing about the history of black Catholics in Charleston.