Founded by Lebanese immigrants, St. Mary remains a testament of faith

SUMMERTON—Dr. Arthur Joseph, 87, lives and worships in Columbia.

But once a year, usually in December, he makes a 70-mile trip to attend Mass at St. Mary Church in Summerton. He does it to honor his late mother, Dorothy Joseph, who made regular pilgrimages over dirt roads from Georgetown to worship there because God had answered her prayers for a son.

She felt a special tie to the little church on Cantey Street, he said, because the people who started it shared her Lebanese heritage.

As members of the parish prepare to celebrate their centennial on Feb. 2, Dr. Joseph and others with family ties to St. Mary want people to know the role their ancestors played in bringing a Catholic presence to Clarendon County.

Lebanese immigrants first came to Summerton to start businesses in the late 19th century, and by 1899 were attending Masses celebrated in private homes by priests who traveled 20 miles from St. Anne in Sumter, according to a written parish history.

In 1913, several Lebanese families purchased a parcel of land along Cantey Street, where a small wooden chapel was built. The church, then a mission of St. Anne, was dedicated in 1914 by Bishop Henry P. Northrop and blessed by Bishop William T. Russell in 1917.

Stained glass windows in the church bear the names of many of the founders, including the Nimmers, Shaleulys and Josephs. Dr. Joseph in Columbia also commissioned a round window of St. Sharbel, a Maronite Lebanese saint, and dedicated it to his parents.

The original church was expanded in 1951 and blessed again by Bishop John J. Russell in 1952. St. Mary was established as an independent parish in 1960. Our Lady of Hope in Manning is a mission of St. Mary, although these days the Manning church has more members.

Only a few descendants of the original families still live in Summerton. Most of the 30 households listed as current members of St. Mary are retirees who moved to the area because of nearby Lake Marion. The current administrator is Dominican Father Samuel Oloyede.

“The centennial is exciting because it’s not just a celebration of this church, but also of the history of the Catholic church in this county,” Father Oloyede said. “The community here is small, but they’re strong in their faith.”

Barbara Shontere and her husband joined St. Mary after moving to the area from Maryland in 2002.

“The parish family is very close knit,” Shontere said. “People care here about each other and help take care of the church and the facilities.”

Members also give back to the community. The parish sponsors a food pantry serving about 300 clients a month, and volunteers also stock a clothes closet for the needy that is open daily.

For decades, the church attracted travelers because Summerton is located near Highways 15 and 301, busy roadways before Interstate 95 was built in the 1970s. Visitors still frequently show up and many are struck by the quiet beauty of the place.

“It’s not unusual for us to find extra money in the collection plate or to receive donations because people just fall in love with this little church,” Shontere said. Several years ago, the church was able to install new carpeting thanks to one woman who left money to the parish in her will after visiting just once while passing through on the way to Florida.

Carol Louise James of Sumter is descended from two of the founding families, the Josephs and the Shaleulys. She grew up in Summerton and remembers Wednesday religious education classes at St. Mary offered by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.

“That’s the most wonderful place ever, so special to me,” she said. “It holds a lot of connection for me because my grandparents helped build it and my parents raised me there. We got to know the priests and the sisters and that really taught me a lot of respect for the faith. The things I learned there made me the strong Christian I am. I really don’t know how to put all my feelings about St. Mary into words.”

Dr. Carium Joseph, who lives in Charleston, grew up in Greeleyville in Williamsburg County and attended church both in Kingstree and Summerton. Stained glass windows at St. Mary bear the names of his father, Moses Joseph; his mother, Sadda Joseph; plus uncles and other family members who contributed to the parish.

“It’s just a very nice, pretty little church that has an awful lot of important history associated with it,” he said. “It makes me feel very proud of my relatives and ancestors who struggled to build that church. It’s a real testimony to their faith and commitment.”

The St. Mary centennial celebration on Feb. 2 will include an 11 a.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, a reception, and the unveiling of a historical marker on the church grounds.

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