St. Augustine Church in Union celebrates its centennial

The first Catholic church was built in Union in 1888 but never completed. Above is the current St. Augustine Church, which replaced what was then Holy Trinity. The Mass time listed in this file photo has changed to 8 a.m.

UNION—St. Augustine Church celebrated its 100th anniversary on Oct. 20 with a special Mass, but Catholic history in Union dates back much longer than a century.

The present Roman Catholic Community in Union County grew from a small beginning in 1845 consisting of just a few families. The small group of Catholics was visited once or twice a year by priests from Columbia and Greenville, and Mass was celebrated in private homes.

In 1862, when the journey took a full day by rail, Phillip and Margaret Larking Dunne took their month-old daughter, Julia, to Columbia to have her baptized. At the time, this was where the closest priests to Unionville were located: three O’Connell brothers, all from Ireland. The Father O’Connell who baptized baby Julia then made trips to Unionville, where he stayed at the Dunne’s and celebrated Mass in their home — the house on North Pinckney that was the residence of the late Philip Dunne Flynn. 

After a few years, Mass was relocated to a more centrally located place at the home of James and Mary Larking Grant — the old Governor Gist house that was across the street from the courthouse, built by Gist in 1823 before he built Rose Hill. The house had a large parlor where the “Square Grand” piano was covered with a linen sheet from Ireland and used as an altar. 

The priest remained after the service as non-Catholics came to visit and pay their respects.

The first Catholic Church in Union was built on North Pinckney Street in 1888, where the former Fincher’s Restaurant was located, but it was never finished. A number of Catholics moved away from Union and those who remained could not raise enough money to complete the structure. Windows were never installed but there was a floor and children later used it for skating. Services continued in private homes. 

In 1919, Bishop William T. Russell allowed a Knights of Columbus building — not a chapel — to be moved from Camp Wadsworth to Union and placed at the site where the present church is now located. Named Holy Trinity, it was large enough for 200 people and featured stained glass memorial windows, by the Purcell and Flynn families. 

Diocese of Charleston Archives: Holy Trinity circa 1920s, before it was taken down and the new church was erected and renamed St. Augustine.

As the story goes, the arrival of the church was under unique circumstances. An unnamed general, who wanted to show appreciation for the good works of  the Knights of Columbus during World War I, had the building taken down, placed on flat train cars and sent to Union.

The late Catherine Purcell, a member of one of Union’s prominent Catholic families, said in a 1993 interview that the church was unique.

“The Catholic Church in Sumter gave us a beautiful altar and we were given beautiful statuary for the stations of the cross around the walls,” she said. “By 1938 there were only four Catholic families left in Union and the priest serving the congregation at that time talked the bishop into tearing down our church and renaming it and replacing it with the building that is there now.” 

Purcell said when the parish lost its original church, the altar and stations of the cross were given away. She said the memorial windows were too large to go into the smaller building and when they were resized the memorial dedications were left off. 

The present church was built by Father Francis Ferri on the site of the former structure and the name was changed to St. Augustine.

Purcell said St. Augustine prospered during the textile boom following World War II as textile workers — many of whom were Catholics from the North — were brought to Union by Milliken & Co. The membership grew more with the coming of Cone Mills’ Carlisle Finishing Plant.

Over the years, the parish acquired two homes next to the church. A rectory was purchased by Bishop Francis Reh from Mary S. McHugh in 1963. Then in 1976, Seton House, formerly the Milhous home, was purchased next door to the rectory and converted to an educational building.

In 1995, Father Richard D. Harris (now monsignor) made a complete renovation of St. Augustine. In 1998, Father Gary Linsky refurbished the rectory and Seton House.

 Father Michael McCafferty is the current pastor of St. Augustine, and also serves Sacred Heart Church in Gaffney. He is assisted by Deacon William Bower and Marion Byrd, who has served as historian, officially and unofficially, for many years.

On Jan. 24, 1999, Catherine Purcell, the last surviving member of the oldest Catholic family in Union, passed away. She was 90 years old. The Purcell family’s association with St. Augustine dated back more than 100 years to the time when their grandfather, James Grant, helped with the construction of what was to have been Union’s first Catholic church — the church that was begun in 1888.

Reprinted with permission.

By Anna Brown/Union County News