Historical Walterboro schoolhouse may be renovated into social hall

Old schoolhouse

Old schoolhouseSt. James the Greater Mission in Walterboro is one step closer to converting its historical schoolhouse into a social hall.
Father Jeffrey A. Kendall, pastor of the mission and St. Anthony Church, said the architectural plans were recently approved by the parish. Now they just need the go-ahead from the city zoning board and the diocesan building committee.
The schoolhouse has a history dating back to the plantation days of the 1800s. Its plans call for renovation of the original schoolhouse —  plus construction of a new building behind it.
Drawings show an entry, a downstairs kitchen and pantry, bathrooms, two classrooms, an office, and tons of storage, Father Kendall said.
He hopes to have a sidewalk and landscaping that will tie the old school/new parish hall to the church, and said he is committed to using green energy if possible.
The priest, who has a degree in engineering, said he had a hard time choosing which part of the school’s history to canonize.
He decided to keep the best of the old and incorporate the new regardless of the date. The drop ceiling will be removed, exposing the original beams. Also, the additions of linoleum and paneling will be stripped away.
Father Kendall said he hopes when the project is finished that it will bring the faithful back to St. James.
He said the parish community dates back to the 1830s, with plantation owners and slaves alike in attendance at the same church. The original structure was burnt to the ground around 1850 when a field fire blazed out of control.
The South was then devastated by the Civil War and the church and parish were lost, but Father Kendall said the freed slaves were so devout that they continued to practice the faith for years without a priest.
In 1870, they built a Catholic schoolhouse for their children. Then in the 1890s, a priest visiting the backcountry rediscovered the community and built a new church.
St. James is now on its third church building, but the school is still standing.
Father Kendall said the two-room, red schoolhouse was used well into the 1970s, and then converted into a parish hall. About 10 years ago, the structure had to be closed because it was in such disrepair.
Not having a social hall has hurt the parish, Father Kendall said, noting that many people have left because there isn’t religious education or women’s and men’s groups to unite the Catholic community anymore. He said the mission used to have 30 children in religious education.
Father C. Alexander McDonald, who served as pastor from 1994 to 1996, started the building fund to renovate the school. The account had $130,000 when Father Kendall arrived in 2010. Since then, the parish has raised most of the $250,000 required, including a $75,000 donation from the Catholic Extension group. The priest said they are still a bit short of their goal, but he has faith they will get there.
In fact, he and his parishioners have a date in mind for completion of the building: June 25, 2012, which is the feast of St. James.