GREENVILLE—W.C. Daniels has seen a lot of change in his 92 years.
He remembers when black people and white people couldn’t worship together in Southern churches. He recalls when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of his beloved St. Anthony of Padua Church. And he reluctantly recites all the labels given to him — Negro, black, African-American.
“One thing however has not changed,” he told a crowd of hundreds packed into the gym at St. Anthony of Padua School on Oct. 18. “What has not changed is that I have always been Catholic, and I will always be Catholic.”
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone attended the Oct. 18 banquet, which featured Daniels and dozens of others sharing stories of the early years. Several people traveled from out of state to mark the milestone, and the crowd included long time members like Deacon Henry Dillard, who parish historians say was the first black Catholic ordained to the permanent diaconate for the Diocese of Charleston.
Hundreds also flocked to Conestee Park on Oct. 19 for a parish picnic.
St. Anthony of Padua from its beginnings was a haven for those who faced discrimination because of their race and were also a distinct minority in the largely Protestant community. They had no place of their own to worship until the mid-1930s, when Father Sydney F. Dean, a priest assigned to St. Mary Church in downtown Greenville, started ministering to the community.
Families first worshipped together in the basement at St. Francis Hospital. Planning and construction for a mission church started in early 1939, according to a published church history, and St. Anthony of Padua was formally dedicated by Bishop Emmet M. Walsh in October of that year.
Franciscan priests and sisters have served the church since its beginning, and the current pastor is Franciscan Father Patrick Tuttle.
Membership has fluctuated over the decades. It was down to only about 150 in 2005, but a recent surge has boosted the flock to over 1,200, including more people of Asian and Hispanic heritage.
Both black and white Catholics attended the parish from its earliest years, a fact which led to the Klan’s cross-burning. That didn’t stop the faithful from attending, members said.
“I was a former altar boy, although I remember Father Bob threw me off the altar 18 different times for misbehaving,” he said.
Gallivan is proud that his parish has always been dedicated to ministering to people in need.
“This has always been an oasis for the poor, and I hope I’ve been influenced by what I’ve learned here,” he said. “St. Anthony’s mission is especially important in the culture we live in, which denies the importance of helping the poor.”
Theresa Lockhart, 89, has been a member for 75 years. She was not raised Catholic but said she was one of the first members of the first religious education class to convert, even though her parents didn’t approve initially.
“I can remember we studied that old Baltimore catechism,” she said, receiving laughter and knowing nods from several others, who also told stories of long study sessions memorizing passages during classes held by Franciscan nuns, who often taught outside under the trees.
“I wouldn’t be anything else but a member of St. Anthony,” she said. “I look around here and I know so many of you, many of you since you were born. I’ve had a beautiful life at this church and I’ll be here until they take me out of it.”
Education is also an important part of the St. Anthony of Padua story. The parish school was founded in 1951 to educate black students in the neighborhood surrounding the church. Classes were held in a farmhouse, then in an old cinder block building first built in 1956. After a long fundraising campaign, a beautiful new building was erected and dedicated in 2013.
Former students recalled how the school taught them not only academics, but important moral lessons.
Gwen Whitner said one day she came to school to discover that a classmate’s mother had died the night before. The boy still showed up for class.
“The sister told us that every one of us needed to work to make him feel better that day, and that was what we did,” she said. “I think if more children today learned to be empathetic like we were taught that we wouldn’t have as much trouble as we have.”
The church on Gower Street has always offered a beacon of welcome for those in need of help, physically and spiritually, and that was what drew Mary Mujahid shortly after she arrived in Greenville in 2005 after losing everything to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
She wasn’t Catholic when she started attending Mass at St. Anthony, but was drawn to the faith by the messages she heard from the pulpit and the warmth of the people.
“People say Hurricane Katrina brought me here, but I always say it was almighty God that brought me to this parish,” she said.