Redemptorists have ministered to the poor and abandoned in S.C. for 90 years

The four Redemptorist priests currently serving Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia are (left to right) Fathers Peter Sousa, Michael Koncik, George Rosario and Blas Ceceres. (Provided)

An order of priests with origins in 18th-century Italy is currently celebrating 90 years of service in the Diocese of Charleston.

Priests from the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists, first arrived in South Carolina in 1930 on the invitation of Bishop Emmett M. Walsh. Over the next 90 years, they served the faithful and spread the Gospel in nearly all corners of the state, ministering to black Catholics during the era of Jim Crow segregation and also focusing on the poor and vulnerable in every community. 

Redemptorist Father Peter Sousa, pastor of Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia, put together a history of his community’s work in the state earlier this year and recently shared it with The Miscellany. Information in this article comes from Father Sousa’s history and the Redemptorist website.

The Redemptorists were founded in Naples, Italy, on Nov. 9, 1732, by St. Alphonsus Liguori. The order spread throughout northern Europe, and the first group of Redemptorist priests arrived in the United States in 1832 to minister to Native Americans and then to German immigrants. Although the order itself arrived in South Carolina much later, the first Redemptorist priests appeared in Charleston in 1857 to lead a mission. Then in 1863, a Redemptorist who was a Confederate army chaplain celebrated Mass in the city while it was under siege by Union troops. 

The order primarily served in the Northeast U.S. until the late 1920s, at which time they started to move south to serve the poor and establish church communities for Black people who were living under Jim Crow-era segregation. 

The priests arrived in South Carolina in 1930 and were assigned to Orangeburg, where they took charge of Holy Trinity Church and started Christ the King Church for Black Catholics, who did not have their own place to worship. They served in Orangeburg until 1992. 

Bishop Walsh also invited the order to start what became St. Joseph Church, a parish for Black Catholics in Spartanburg, in 1939. The congregation met first in a rented store until the priests purchased land for a church and social hall, which was completed in 1944. During their time in Spartanburg, the Redemptorist priests experienced financial struggles and anti-Catholic bias from members of the community. They also saw firsthand the discrimination that the Black community faced, so they worked with the NAACP and served as advocates for the community whenever possible, including assisting Black people who were unjustly arrested and ministering to them when they were sick. The Redemptorists also celebrated Mass and heard confessions for soldiers stationed at Camp Croft in the Upstate during World War II. The congregation served in Spartanburg until 1963.

Redemptorist priests from Orangeburg started a mission for the Black community in Aiken in 1942, where Mass was first celebrated in an old movie theater. The mission was named after St. Gerard Majella, who was a Redemptorist, and in 1947 became St. Gerard Church, which still exists today. 

In 1984, Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler invited the Redemptorists to start a parish on the north end of Hilton Head Island. Redemptorist Father Joseph Majewski was sent to the island, and for many years the community he started met for Mass at the Crazy Crab restaurant and in local schools until the church that is now St. Francis by the Sea was built in 1991.

In 1993, personnel shortages in the order forced the Redemptorists to leave Orangeburg after construction of Holy Trinity Church was completed. Three Redemptorists were sent to serve at St. Anne and St. Jude in Sumter, replacing the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who had served there since 1939.

Starting in 2014, the congregation’s leadership realized they were unable to continue staffing all their parishes in the Southeast because of declining numbers and financial concerns. Father Sousa said it was decided the priests would leave Sumter and possibly even the diocese, but Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone asked if two of them could be assigned to Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia. 

Father Sousa and Father John Murray arrived there in Aug. 2015. Father Sousa currently serves there with three other Redemptorists: Father Blas Caceres from Paraguay, Father George Rosario from India, and Father Michael Koncik, who is the diocesan chaplain for prison ministry.

Father Sousa, who is bilingual, has been able to help serve the growing Hispanic population at the parish, and said he is also working to bring everyone in the parish together with a stronger sense of community and unity through the sacraments. 

“As a religious order, our charism is to minister to the poor and abandoned in the community,” Father Sousa said. “That’s what we’ve done here in South Carolina, and what we are trying to do here at Our Lady of the Hills. Our focus is taking care of the people and their needs, whatever they are.”