CHESTER—It is a determined people who attend Mass in the small brick church tucked away on West End Street. As a parish, they have withstood the ups and downs of the economy, a dwindling population and an anti-Catholic bias.
The Diocese of Charleston purchased the former Presbyterian house of worship in 1854 and renamed it St. Joseph.
Changes were made over the years, such as the addition of stained glass windows and a bell tower. Priests travelled in for services until 1950, when The Oratory in Rock Hill sent St. Joseph its first resident priest. Oratorians served there until 1981. At first, the priests lived downtown in rooms provided by parishioner Lutie Eisenman. Then, in 1953, members built a rectory and parish hall on the site of a former stable.
What hasn’t changed, longtime parishioners say, are the bonds of love and faith nurtured within those walls.
“It’s a very loving and supportive parish, and it just feels like home to me,” said Anne Bond Peterson, 75. She has attended St. Joseph all of her life.
“I have so many memories here I couldn’t tell you all of them,” she said.
She recalled her late father, Jim Bond, would arrive at church in the early morning before Mass to load wood in a small stove that heated the building. In those days, parishioners provided dinner for the priest, and her family’s night was Wednesday. Her happy memories include Christmas crowds at midnight Mass and proudly watching her brother, James, who was the only altar boy for many years.
The parishioners faced challenges because they were a minority faith in the region.
“It was very difficult to be, literally, the only teenager who couldn’t eat meat on Fridays,” Peterson said. “I couldn’t belong to the only social organization for teenage girls, the Rainbows, because it was affiliated with the Masons. People didn’t understand that. There was a lot of anti-Catholic prejudice back then, but society has changed.”
Catholics now play a larger role in Chester, said Father David A. Runnion, the current pastor. Folks from St. Joseph regularly take part in ecumenical services sponsored by the local ministerial association during Holy Week, and support local food pantries and other social ministries with other churches.
Anne McMurray said the parish is the kind of place where members will call someone and check on them if they don’t show up for Mass.
They might be small, only 67 households, but that doesn’t stop people from being as active as possible,
McMurray belongs to the women’s club, whose members host monthly covered dish suppers and take part in a variety of service projects. They visit nursing homes, donate money to provide medicine for the poor and help out people in need, McMurray said. The prayer shawl ministry provides about 100 blankets and shawls a year to area hospitals and hospices.
“It’s an inspiration to those of us who are members,” McMurray said. “It’s where we belong.”
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