Railroad is beginning of the line for St. Francis of Assisi

WALHALLA—For a century, a simple but serenely beautiful wooden building tucked away on East Mauldin Street has been the spiritual home for Catholics in this picturesque mountain town.

St. Francis of Assisi Mission was built by parishioners who donated their time, their money, hours of sweat and labor, and even the wood, so they could have their own church. Today, the mission is home to a small but strong congregation who love and care for each other and treasure the little building passed down to them by that early group of dedicated people.

On May 13, current and former members packed the small church nearly to overflowing for a 100th anniversary celebration. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone celebrated Mass followed by a joyful reception in the parish hall.

The bishop congratulated the members of St. Francis on their close-knit community.

“People come to an understanding of who Jesus is through seeing others who live a Christian life well-lived, and for 100 years people here at St. Francis have been doing precisely that,” he said.

All photos by Christina Lee Knauss/Miscellany: Richard Rochester and Jenny Grobusky greet each other after Mass. The two have attended the mission all their lives.

Catholics were few and far-flung in this corner of the Upstate in the early 19th century. Their numbers increased when 600 Irish Catholics moved to the area to work on the proposed Blue Ridge Railroad in the 1850s. The project was an ill-fated attempt to connect South Carolina with Tennessee for trade, and called for tunnels to go through several mountains in the area, including Stumphouse Mountain near Walhalla.

The Irish worked on what became known as the Stumphouse Tunnel, and a small town called Tunnel Hill sprang up near the construction site. It had its own church, St. Patrick, which was served by itinerant priests, and for a while had the largest Catholic congregation in the Upstate, according to a published history.

Funding for the railroad dried up and the tunnel was abandoned. The town of Tunnel Hill slowly died away and with it St. Patrick Church, which was partially destroyed by fire, then damaged by storms. It is said that the wood of the church was scavenged for firewood by homeless Civil War deserters. All that remains of the church and the town is a cemetery northwest of Walhalla.

Many of the descendants of those Irish workers remained in Walhalla and surrounding areas of Oconee County and still needed a place to worship. In 1916, construction began on the church building on East Mauldin Street, on land purchased from Rosa Fahnstock by Bishop Henry P. Northrop. Parishioners used lumber from their farms for the building. It was completed in 1916 and officially dedicated as a mission on May 13, 1917, by Bishop William T. Russell.

Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, center, prepares for the consecration during a 100th anniversary Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Mission in Walhalla, with concelebrants Father Gregory West, left, and Father William Hearne, right.

St. Francis was originally a mission of St. Joseph Church in Anderson, then St. Andrew Church in Clemson, and now is connected to St. Paul the Apostle in Seneca. Diocesan priests served there from 1917 through 1940, and then the Paulist Fathers took the helm from 1940 through 2006. Priests from the diocese returned to the mission in 2006. The current pastor is Father William Hearne.

When St. Francis of Assisi was dedicated, there were only 12 Catholic families. By 1940, those numbers had grown to 128 Catholics in Oconee and Pickens counties, including 52 students at what was then Clemson College. Currently, the mission serves about 125 households in a region where the number of faithful continues to grow.

At 93, Jenny Grobusky is the oldest member of St. Francis. She is a Walhalla native and became Catholic when she married. She raised her five children at St. Francis of Assisi and has never considered going anywhere else.

“The very real closeness we have here is what makes it special,” she said. “You know everybody and everyone cares for each other.”

Richard Rochester, 83, was born and raised in the Bountyland community just outside Walhalla and has attended St. Francis all his life. His mother, Vivian Rochester, was one of the founding members. He was baptized and married there, and all of his children were baptized there as well.

Rochester can remember days when the Catholic community was tiny and only five people attended Mass. He also recalled serving at Latin Masses as an altar boy with his best friend Mickey Wood.

“It’s special to me to be here because my family and I have experienced so many milestones here,” he said. “This church is just a very friendly place with wonderful people. I never thought I’d be here so long to see this milestone.”

Members of the mission can be seen in this photo dating from 1929.