Catholic Christian booth is a blue ribbon hit at the fair

COLUMBIA — The S.C. State Fair is not a place most people would expect to find the faithful handing out rosaries and St. Michael prayer cards beneath a portrait of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Each year, dedicated volunteers staff the Catholic Christian booth in the fair’s Hampton Building for 10 days from early morning until closing time.  
The booth, a staple at the fair for 30 years, is the only Catholic presence in the commercial exhibit halls, which also host tables sponsored by Protestant denominations and other Christian groups such as the Gideons International.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, volunteer Fred Simon elli handed out handmade rosaries to some visitors while Theresa Freshwater explained the Stations of the Cross and the Divine Mercy Chaplet to others. They gave stickers that read “Jesus Loves Me” and “I Will Pray for You” to children who asked for them.
The booth, which included a poster showing all of the popes, seemed like a welcome spiritual oasis in a section of the building, which also included people hawking designer handbags, karate lessons and kitchen gadgets.
Simonelli, a member of St. Joseph Church in Columbia, has worked at the Catholic Christian booth since 2004. His wife Theresa also volunteers.
“I love it,” Simonelli said. “If we meet one person we can reach, that’s a successful day. It’s great if we can make them think about the church a little bit. A lot of people tell you they used to be Catholic and they’re interested in coming back.”
Simonelli said he meets people of all faiths, many of whom have emotional stories to tell and are seeking prayer. He said this year one man told him his girlfriend had an abortion even though he begged her not to do it.
Freshwater, a member of Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia, has volunteered at the booth for four years.
“I used to be afraid to do something like this, but not anymore,” she said. “This is a real chance to share my faith. The Holy Spirit moves you to share stories with people, just to be happy and smile at the people who pass. Sometimes even that gesture can be a grace for someone.”
The booth is stocked with donated brochures describing basic aspects of the Catholic faith, prayer cards with images of Mary and various saints, and booklets about the church’s position on marriage and moral issues. The materials also are available in Spanish.
Simonelli, who volunteers as a media missionary coordinator for Eternal Word Television Network in the diocese, said EWTN donates brochures, prayer booklets written by Mother Angelica, and pens to give out to visitors.
Freshwater said one of the most popular brochures they offer is “Top Ten Reasons to Come Back to the Catholic Church,” published by Our Sunday Visitor.
A box marked “Prayer Requests” stands in the center of the table. Visitors can fill out anonymous prayer requests and put them in the box. Freshwater said Father Anthony Droze of Our Lady of the Hills planned to offer the requests in prayer during a Mass on Oct. 19.
Over the years, many people have stopped at the booth to tell Freshwater about problems in their lives and what God has done for them as a result of prayer. She said she offers support and prayer, and that many times people are happy to find someone who will pray for them or listen to their faith stories.
“I love people, and if you’re open to people you can never be sure just what impression you’ll make on someone or who the Holy Spirit will bring to you,” she said.
Deacon Jack Crocker and his wife Sharon are two of the main organizers of the annual booth. Mrs. Crocker said the booth is co-sponsored by the Legion of Mary, the Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Columbus Auxiliary from Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia.
She said 80 volunteers from the Midlands and the Pee Dee area, including Florence, signed up for this year’s booth.