African families find new homes in South Carolina

DILLON—St. Louis Church has become a spiritual home for a variety of nationalities. Some of the most recent immigrants filled four pews on one side of the church during Sunday morning Mass. The colorful, multi-patterned dresses worn by the women reflected the culture of their home country, the Republic of Burundi in east Africa.

Since 2009, more than 40 Burundians have joined St. Louis after moving to Dillon as part of a refugee resettlement program. Most of them fled civil war and ongoing ethnic strife in their nation.

In recent years, immigrants have come to the area to work in a variety of industries, including health care and manufacturing. They expanded St. Louis’ membership of 74 households to include Hispanic and Filipino families.

The Burundi community has also made its mark, working at the Perdue chicken processing plant in Dillon, and operating stores and other businesses.

Ndayishimiye Valentino, 34, attends St. Louis with his wife Christina, 30, and their children, Florence, 11, Aristide, 7, and Patrick, 5.

Valentino said he was thankful for the church because it helps his family maintain a relationship with God that was first nurtured in his home country. The Mass might be celebrated in a different language, he said, but the rituals and the meaning of the Eucharist are still the same.

“When you come here from Africa, you don’t like to change too many things,” he said. “The Catholic faith is who we are. We were baptized in the church, and we need to be able to continue our faith. At this parish, we are able to do that.”

Other members of the community say they feel welcome, but one of their main challenges is learning English. The children are learning it in school. Some local schools and organizations offer classes for adults, but it’s often hard for them to attend because of work schedules.

Elizabeth Vergara, the church secretary, understands what it means to emigrate. She came to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1987 to work as a teacher, and moved to nearby Latta with her husband in 2006.

Vergara said some of the African families asked her for help negotiating challenges of daily life, such as setting up bank accounts.

She organizes children’s Sunday school classes and hopes to begin religious education classes for the Burundian adults.

Father Marcian Thet-Kyaw, administrator at St. Louis and Church of the Infant Jesus Mission in nearby Marion, said he hopes their new building in the works will provide enough space for all the church members to meet regularly and get to know each other.

Construction of a new parish center is almost complete, with a dedication set for Aug. 28.

“If they can meet, they can join in friendship,” he said. “To have all the people loving and sharing together as one community is our mission. Our small community hasn’t experienced this kind of diversity before, and we have to work hard to bring everyone together.”