CONWAY—St. James Church in Conway started 75 years ago with a few faithful people who met in homes and hotel lobbies, and now is a diverse, thriving parish serving more than 1,600 families.
Plans to celebrate its 75th anniversary earlier this year were changed by the novel coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped growth and activity at the parish.
“We honestly haven’t missed a beat since the pandemic started,” said Paula Loehr, “We’ve been developing new ministries and finding out ways we can keep connected with the congregation and the community. That’s really been the biggest way we’ve honored the anniversary.”
Father Oscar Borda, the current pastor, also dedicated a special “unity park” in front of the parish with large block letters that read “I love St. James.” The park is in honor of two former pastors, Msgr. Chet Moczydlowski and Father Frederick LaBrecque. Both priests were able to join Father Borda at an anniversary Mass held in early May that was livestreamed for parishioners.
The parish launched a new website earlier this year and a mission theme, “Go and make disciples.” An outreach program called “Mission St. James” has volunteers working to help people in need in the community each month.
The parish also launched a new social justice ministry led by Taylor Monahan, the youth and young adult minister, and is starting a grief support program.
These ministries and dozens of others, plus worship and education opportunities, add to the vibrant life of a parish that started off small.
According to a published church history, in the 1940s there were only a few Catholics living in Conway. In 1945, the mission of St. James started, served by priests from St. Andrew in Myrtle Beach.
Founding members included Marion and Frances Smith and their daughter, Priscilla; and Holly Hollihan, a nurse at the community hospital who became known for helping to deliver hundreds of Conway babies.
Mass was originally celebrated in private homes and borrowed spaces, including a hotel lobby and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars building. Then, in 1962 St. James became a mission of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in North Myrtle Beach. Soon, fundraising for a church began, and was helped by the Prashacks, a couple from Wisconsin who donated $10,000 after stopping for Mass at the mission.
In 1962, a church known as the Catholic Church of St. James the Younger was built at the intersection of Church Street and U.S. 501 in downtown Conway and dedicated by Bishop Paul J. Hallinan. Shortly after, St. James was elevated to a parish.
Over the next 20 years, the population of St. James grew and became more diverse as more people moved to the Conway area, including retirees from the Northeast and Midwest and a large Hispanic population. By 1990, the parish served more than 400 families and had outgrown its building. In 1992, the parish purchased the property of the former Waccamaw Academy, located at Academy Drive off U.S. 501.
The school buildings were remodeled to hold offices and classrooms, and the current church building, which holds 450 people, was built. In 2007, St. James added a columbarium and renovated the school’s former gymnasium, now known as the Founders Center.
The diverse congregation includes a very large Hispanic population, which first started through outreach by Father LaBrecque during his years at the church from 1995-2011, and has grown ever since. Father Borda has been working to make sure that Hispanics are represented on the parish council and in other organizations.
Pat Millus has been a member of St. James for more than 40 years, ever since she and her late husband Don first visited the parish shortly after they moved to Conway for his job teaching at what was then Coastal Carolina College. She raised her three children in the parish, and over the years served as the director of religious education and pastoral associate.
She remembers working beside other parishioners to help clean up the former Waccamaw Academy property after the parish moved there in 1992. Millus said she could see God’s plan in the purchase, because the parish was the only bidder when the site came up for auction.
“There was a lot to do — it looked like the people who had been there had just disappeared,” she recalled. “There were still books in the former library, sneakers left behind in the gymnasium. But we all worked together to get it ready and it showed what a strong spirit we had as a parish.”
She said growth and change hasn’t altered the close community feeling at St. James.
“We’ve become a more diverse parish and we do a lot of community outreach, putting Catholic social teaching into action,” Millus said. “It’s amazing to me how the church has grown from that first little group of people that first welcomed my family 40 years ago, yet the parish still has that same spirit of genuine warmth and hospitality.”