CONWAY—Father Frederick LaBrecque, known as “Father Rick” to most of his parishioners, retired officially on Sept. 5 after 16 years of service at St. James Church in Conway.
When he arrived at the church located off U.S. Highway 501 in the mid 1990s, it was only to serve for a few months.
Instead, those months turned into years during which the priest helped organize an increasingly diverse parish into a cohesive community dedicated to fellowship and service.
Born in Connecticut, he was the oldest of nine children of Dr. Frederick and Alice LaBrecque.
He was ordained in 1967 as a priest of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. He served the order in many ways, including stints as a teacher and communications director, but eventually decided he wanted to minister in a diocese.
He met Bishop David B. Thompson, who said his fluency in Spanish would be especially useful because more Hispanics were moving to the Diocese of Charleston.
Father LaBrecque faced many challenges after he arrived in Conway. The church’s interior was severely damaged in a fire on New Year’s Day of 1996. For many months he celebrated Mass in an old gymnasium building on the church property, which was originally Waccamaw Academy. In the latter part of that decade, three hurricanes brushed the South Carolina coast and the church served as a shelter for evacuees. Women religious who were serving the parish had to be evacuated from their house when Hurricane Floyd caused floods on the Waccamaw River in 1999.
St. James also quickly began to reflect the diverse group of people moving to Horry County. Retirees and young families came from the north and Midwest, and an increasing number of Hispanics arrived, attracted first to the county by farm work and then more permanent jobs in construction, landscaping and the hospitality industry.
From the beginning, Father LaBrecque said his goal was to give Hispanic Catholics a chance to fully practice their faith and become an integral part of life at St. James.
Today they offer Spanish Mass, religious education and a youth group for Hispanics, and a Knights of Columbus council with many Hispanic members.
St. James has become known in Horry County for its elaborate celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, which includes hundreds of people who participate in a torch run between Loris and Conway. It regularly attracts more than 1,000 people to the church for a Mass and celebration. Father LaBrecque took part in the torch run for many years.
“I’m proud that we came to the point where the Hispanics have ownership of their own community, and where they can take part in the life and ministry of the parish with everybody else,” Father LaBrecque said.
He also supervised the expansion of the Church of the Resurrection Mission in Loris, which served only about 30 families when he arrived and now has a membership of 110 households.
Father LaBrecque is also proud of an increase in social outreach, both in Horry County and beyond the borders of the U.S. Since 2007, he has traveled with parish members three times on mission trips to Honduras.
This year, the group helped rebuild a one-room school.
Retirement, however, doesn’t mean the former pastor will stop working.
He will continue to live in his house in Little River and hopes to pursue a love of writing and travel.
He also plans to visit parishes around the country to help raise funds for a Catholic organization that sponsors young people and the elderly in poor nations.
“If I were to write an account of my priesthood and my service here, I’d say how God in his own way guides our lives,” Father LaBrecque said. “This has been the happiest and most fulfilling period of my priesthood. We’ve had many challenges, but the spirit of this community is so welcoming, we’ve been able to work through the challenges.”