A century of St. Anne

A century of rich Catholic history in Sumter County has taken place beneath the soaring Gothic ceilings of St. Anne Church on West Liberty Street.

On May 21, hundreds of people packed into the church and then attended a reception at the nearby O’Donnell House to celebrate St. Anne’s 100th anniversary. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrated the 5 p.m. Mass.

The parish, now known as the Sumter Catholic Community, also includes members of St. Jude Church.

This jubilation was about the heritage of St. Anne, known for its double steeples and dozens of vividly colored stained-glass windows.

Redemptorist Father Thomas A. Burke, pastor of the community, spoke about its history. He talked about Irish immigrants who played a large role in the community, and the many struggles it faced, including lean times during the Great Depression and heavy damage when Hurricane Hugo swept through Sumter in 1989.

Over the years, many people have praised St. Anne’s quiet beauty, he said, but the true beauty and strength lies in the people past and present who made the church a reality.

“All churches are beautiful, but for us this church is beautiful because this church is ours,” he said. “It’s here we’ve spiritually been fed on the word of God, with His body and with His blood. It’s here we are strengthened, here we are healed and loved by our God … may we be as proud and as bold and as forward looking as those Catholics who founded this church 100 years ago.”

Church historian Sylvia Lawler, with the help of other parishioners, has written a detailed, published history of St. Anne, including many details about Catholic history in Sumter.

According to the publication, the first Catholic church in the area, then known as Sumterville, was built in 1838 at a place called Providence Springs on ground given by Col. Thomas Sumter Jr. His wife, Natalie DeLage Sumter, was a French Catholic who came to America to escape the Reign of Terror. She was distressed that they had no place to worship in the region that was also known as the High Hills, and worked with the few other Catholic families in the area to start the first church, known as Our Lady of the Assumption.

That first structure was closed and sold in 1848, and proceeds were used to build in the nearby town, which had been renamed Sumter. Area faithful attended Mass in rooms at a local bakery, the courthouse and in the Town Hall until St. Lawrence Church was dedicated in 1850.

Parishioners worshipped in three different buildings under the name of St. Lawrence until 1906, and then used the chapel of nearby St. Joseph Academy until Bishop Henry P. Northrop dedicated St. Anne on May 21, 1911.

Early benefactors of the parish included many local Irish families, such as the Tuomeys, who founded Sumter Hospital, which eventually became the Tuomey Regional Medical Center.

St. Anne’s interior includes distinctive elements, such as a marble altar. Stained glass windows on the east side of the church depict the birth of Christ and were placed there because the rising sun symbolized the beginning of his life on Earth. Windows illustrating the crucifixion are on the west side, symbolizing the setting sun.

Catholic education has been an important part of parish life for more than 150 years. Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy left the siege of Charleston and sought refuge in Sumter during the Civil War. They founded St. Joseph Academy in 1862, which provided boarding school education for girls and day classes for boys until it closed in 1928. The sisters then taught kindergarten and offered religious education to St. Anne children. St. Anne School opened in 1955 and serves more than 100 children in kindergarten through sixth grade.

Members of St. Anne have also joined St. Jude parishioners to restore St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery.

Sister Donna Lareau, OLM, based at Christ Our King Church in Mount Pleasant, attended the celebration with her mother, Constance Lareau, a member of the Sumter parish since 1956.

Sister Donna said St. Anne is important to her because she was taught by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, the diocesan order which she later joined.

The sisters’ dedicated work showed her a true example of a sincere religious vocation, she said.

“This church spoke to me when I was young,” Sister Donna said. “I can remember helping to clean the altar as a child. How can you not be touched by the beauty of that? It speaks to the mystic core of our faith.”

Mrs. Lareau said she wouldn’t have missed the celebration. She is sad to think that the growing Sumter Catholic Community might eventually move to another property the diocese owns off U.S. 521 outside Sumter.

“We raised our family in this church, my grandchildren were baptized here,” she said. “This church means everything to me. I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”