COLUMBIA—Shirley Paige was only a freshman in high school when she left her home and family in Aiken to attend a boarding school run by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, located more than 100 miles away in Sumter. The school served African-American girls and was part of the religious order’s ministry to the black com-munity in South Carolina.
Living away from home was difficult, but more than 50 years later Paige said she is thankful she took up the challenge. Eight years of Catholic education at historically black schools — St. Gerard School in Aiken and the Sumter boarding school — gave her a solid intellectual, spiritual and moral foundation that helped her throughout her life.
She and 250 others celebrated the history of those schools and others in S.C. at the annual Black Catholic Heritage Celebration Feb. 21-22 at St. Martin de Porres Church, as part of the diocesan Bicentennial.
The impact schools had in shaping young lives was the focus of a panel discussion at the event.
Judge Arthur McFarland of Charleston spoke on the history of black Catholic schools and the role they played during segregation and the Jim Crow era. A student of Immaculate Conception during those tumultuous years, McFarland shared his personal insights.
While desegregation was a victory, he said it also had some negatives. Many historically black Catholic schools — which were educational and social fixtures in the communities — closed, leaving people who lived in the neighbor-hoods without access to the benefits these schools provided.
“Catholic education was really a tool for uplifting black families,” McFarland said. “Some of that was lost and a burden was placed back on black families to have access to that kind of education when schools were closed after desegregation.”
Franciscan Father Paul Williams returned to the diocese as one of the keynote speakers. Father Williams served in the diocese for 26 years as pastor at St. Martin de Porres and St. Anthony of Padua in Greenville, which support the last two historically black Catholic schools in the diocese.
Father Williams said reflecting on black Catholic history is important for everyone, but he especially encouraged youth and young adults to hear the stories of what their parents and grandparents experienced.
“We need to tell these stories so the young people won’t be discouraged as they go through life,” Father Williams said. “It’s important for them to listen to the elders we have in the Church who can lead and guide them, and teach them to turn over difficulties to God.”
Shirley Paige said she appreciated the chance to look back on her school experience.
“The sisters gave me a great education and they also taught me a lot about life, how to stand strong in your faith and be confident about yourself,” she said.
“I’m retired and I have been a foster parent now for 17 years. Those years in Sumter taught me how to be able to take care of others and respond to different kinds of needs, and that’s what I do for the kids I take into my home.”