Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Camden rings in 100 years

Above is a composite photograph blending a 1930’s archival image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Camden with a modern day shot of the church.
CAMDEN—When Austin Sheheen enters the front doors of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Camden, he walks straight into the pages of his family history.

“When this church was dedicated in 1914, my grandparents were some of the first parishioners,” the 79-year-old said in a recent interview. “My family is still here 100 years later. My father served as an altar boy here. I served as an altar boy here. I grew up here and my children grew up here. We’ve been here beginning to end.”

Sheheen was one of about 200 people who turned out May 20 for a Mass and reception to mark the church’s centennial. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrated the Mass, joined by Benedictine Father Paul Brenninkmeijer, administrator pro-tem, Father Gustavo Corredor, parochial vicar, and nine other visiting priests.

Father C. Alexander McDonald, pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Columbia, gave the homily. He grew up at the Camden church and had the nostalgic experience of seeing his parents in the congregation.

“This parish and many of you seated here tonight nurtured my faith,” Father McDonald said. “We serve a God who is greater than we can imagine, and for 100 years this building has been a place of worship for God and Jesus Christ.”

Father McDonald talked about the 29 priests who have served the Camden church since it was founded, and paid tribute to the late Father Francis J. Travis, who served as pastor there from 2004 until his death in January.

After Mass, people crowded the courtyard and the front of the church for a reception, and watched as a time capsule of mementoes was buried near the building’s front entrance.

Until the late 19th century, Camden was a mission outpost served by priests who made the trip when they could and celebrated Mass in private homes.

According to a published parish history, the first effort to build a church in Camden came in 1884, but the building was never completed. The first permanent church, named Sacred Heart, was built and dedicate in 1903. That building was used until 1914, and then became a Jewish synagogue.

The current church became a reality thanks to the vision and faith of a Baltimore schoolteacher named Charlotte Thompson, who came to Camden in 1909. Thompson converted to Catholicism during a visit to Rome, and according to the history, was baptized in a church there called Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

After returning from Europe, she dedicated herself to building a new church for Camden, and bought and donated land at the corner of Lyttleton and Pine streets. Her one condition was that the church bear the same name as the one where she became a Catholic. An icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, imported from Italy, hangs over the tabernacle.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help was dedicated on May 24, 1914, by the late Father T.J. Hegarty, who was then pastor of St. Peter Church in Columbia. The building’s Spanish mission style has made it a distinctive landmark, and it was declared a city historical site in 2003.

One of Thompson’s last wishes was to be buried at the church, and the parish benefactress was interred under one of the alcoves in 1926.

The faithful from many parts of the world have had a part in the parish history. One of the earliest donors to the new church was an Irish immigrant named F.W. Gallagher who earned his  fortune as a peddler and lived in Camden for several years before relocating to North Carolina.

Lebanese Catholics who came to the area, such as Sheheen’s grandparents, were some of the earliest parishioners. Their descendants still attend the church.

Additions were made as membership grew over the years, including a rectory and St. Mary’s Hall. A landscaped garden was completed in 1962, the church was enlarged in 1967, and extensive renovations on the altar and flooring were completed in 2005. Currently, the church serves about 691 households, including a growing Hispanic community.

Although the appearance of the church has changed, the memories and the fellowship have not, according to longtime members like Sheheen.

As a boy, he would come to the church on Wednesdays to receive religious instruction from nuns who drove over from Sumter. Because the church had no classrooms at the time, lessons took place in the pews.

“We had one nun who gave her class on the front row, and another who taught on the back row,” he said.

He remembers former pastors like Father J. Edmund Burke, who trained the altar boys in Scripture and the Latin responses of the time and gave them pennies and nickels when they had the right answer.

One of the greatest honors, he said, was when Bishop John J. Russell traveled from Charleston to celebrate the funeral Mass for his grandfather, Abraham Sheheen, at the church.

“This is just a wonderful community and an outstanding parish,” he said.

Paul Joseph, 86, also attended the celebration. His family of Lebanese Catholics lived in Georgetown, but he came to Camden to work as a dentist in 1958. Seven of his eight children were married in Our Lady of Perpetual Help and he taught Sunday school there for many years, he said.

“I feel so privileged to have been here for all these years and seen the growth of this church,” he said. “It’s an extension of Christ and his ministry over time right here in Camden.”

Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Camden, late 1930’s. Photo: Diocese Archives
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Camden, late 1930’s. Photo: Diocese Archives
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Camden, late 1930’s. Photo: Diocese Archives