SUMTER—Cloudy, rainy skies and wintry temperatures couldn’t dampen the joy inside St. Jude Church on the first day of November.
The small church on West Oakland Avenue was packed with people from near and far who came to celebrate the 75th anniversary of a Catholic community that has served as a beacon of hope and friendship over the years.
Over 200 people enjoyed a small concert by the choir, followed by Mass and a banquet in the building which formerly housed St. Jude Catholic High School.
Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone concelebrated Mass with three Redemptorist priests who currently serve the community: Father Thomas Burke, pastor; and Fathers Charles Donovan and Peter Sousa, the parochial vicars.
The Redemptorist Fathers came to St. Jude in 1996 to replace priests from the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who arrived in Sumter in 1939 to open the church.
“St. Jude started as a predominantly black parish, a missionary church for the black community,” said Vernessa Baker. She is a longtime member who attended the parish school as a child and helped organize the anniversary celebration.
At age 84, Wilbert Bracey is St. Jude’s oldest founding member. He joined in 1941 and was baptized in the chapel of the old rectory. He recalled that not everyone was immediately receptive to the Oblate priests when they arrived. Sumter’s black community was mostly Baptist at the time, segregation was in full effect, and some people were suspicious of the newcomers.
The Oblates persevered in their goal to share the Catholic faith and help members of the community, and eventually they were accepted. Bracey recalled that few in the neighborhood owned cars at the time, and the priests would give rides to people and help them run errands.
The first Mass at St. Jude was celebrated in December 1939 in the rectory’s chapel, and the first church building was completed in 1941. The current church was built in 1948.
That year, Sisters of St. Mary of Namur from Buffalo, N.Y., arrived to start an elementary school to educate children from the black community. According to a published parish history, most of the students weren’t Catholic, but many of them eventually joined the faith along with their families. St. Jude School was a fixture in the community until it closed in 1994.
The parish also helped support St. Jude Catholic High School, which operated from 1948 to 1997.
Over the years, St. Jude also played a pivotal role in helping some of the neediest members of the community. The parish sponsored an early childhood enrichment center and a nursery for area children. In 1970, Oblate Father William Atkinson helped start a program for mentally challenged children and adults that eventually became the Sumter County Disabilities and Special Needs Board. Also, Christian Charities of Sumter, an interdenominational program that offers a food pantry for the needy, operates on St. Jude property.
St. Jude existed as a separate parish until 2010, when it was merged with St. Anne Church to form the Catholic Community of Sumter. Mass and other activities are still held at the church on West Oakland, which is also the home of the Sumter Catholic Youth Group, with members from St. Anne, St. Jude and Our Lady of the Skies on Shaw Air Force Base.
The church has also become home to a growing Spanish-speaking community. Spanish Masses are held at 1 p.m. Sundays, and a recently built shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe on the grounds has become a popular place to stop, pray and meditate.
“This church has played a providential role in integration in this community,” Father Burke said during his homily. “Here we are all God’s children, we all have a great dignity in God’s eyes and are part of his family.”
The anniversary celebration offered members a chance to reflect on their years at St. Jude. There were smiles, hugs, and some tears as longtime friends saw each other for the first time in years. Bracey remembered how St. Jude played a role in the social life of the community. He said the old church building that was replaced in 1948 became known as the “Catholic Hall,” and was a center for dances and other social events. Bracey and his friend, Louis Fleming, would “take coats and sell sodas” during the dances. On other nights, people could watch movies projected on sheets hung on the side of the hall.
Parishioner Richard Boisvert recalled how members helped start the diocesan Office for Black Ministry, which eventually evolved into the Office of Ethnic Ministries.
Sister Roberta Fulton, who currently serves as principal at St. Martin de Porres School in Columbia, said one of her first assignments as a Sister of St. Mary of Namur was at St. Jude School. She and Sister Corinne Yarborough said returning to the church and school was like coming home.
“The people here showed me you had Jesus in your hearts,” Sister Corinne said. “You truly taught me what it means to say ‘yes’ to Jesus.”