Catholic, Black and Proud

An Essay on Black Catholics in the Diocese of Charleston
Suzanne Krebsbach

Enduring Faith
The story of Catholic Hill in the Colleton County town of Ritter serves as a metaphor for black Catholics in South Carolina. While the Catholic Hill experience is unique in many respects, it is emblematic of the struggle for the faith in the way that the people of Catholic Hill maintained their identity despite decades of hardship and neglect. In his first mission after taking up the care of the Diocese of Charleston in 1820, Bishop John England sent a priest to Colleton County to serve the spiritual needs of several Catholic plantation owners and their slaves in 1824. In previous years several families, among whom were the Bellingers, Pinckneys, and Smith, had converted to Roman Catholicism and had their slaves baptized as well. These family plantations were concentrated on the Ashepoo River west of Walterboro. The church of St. James the Greater was built in 1835 but burned in 1856. Before it could be rebuilt, Civil War erupted, changing the lives of all South Carolinians. Few of the faithful remained on the Ashepoo in the aftermath of the devastation; the white families left the county, and the newly freed slaves were too poor to carry the burden of a new church. The diocese was in shambles. Churches throughout the state had been burned or abandoned. Emancipation had freed the former slaves of the region but there were few viable institutions in which they could participate.

The black families of Catholic Hill, without a priest, sacraments, or a church building, however, kept the flame of faith alive for many years. The former slave Vincent de Paul Davis took the responsibility for instructing the children of the community in the basics of the Catholic faith. According to some accounts, in 1897 Father Daniel Berberich, a priest from Charleston, visited Ritter and stumbled on what he called a “lost” colony of Catholics on the upper reaches of the Ashepoo River. Other accounts note that the Mill Hill Fathers, or Josephites (an English missionary order) from St. Peter’s Church in Charleston, had responsibility for Beaufort, Walterboro, Coosaw and other places in the 1880s.¹ Berberich was responsible, however, for rebuilding the church.

In 1935, more than 100 years after it was first established, a new church was built and the old school remodeled. While the romantic version of discovering a forgotten Catholic colony in a remote section of the South Carolina sounds more appealing than the unadorned records of the traveling missionaries, the strength of the story lies in its appeal to the enduring legacy of black Catholics. In the words of Cyprian Davis, a noted Black Catholic historian and Benedictine monk, this church, and its community, are a visible monument to the tenacious faith of Black Catholics in South Carolina.²

In The Beginning
Catholics black and white share a history in this state. Black Catholics emerged with a distinct identity in the nineteenth century. The first Catholics in what is now South Carolina were Spanish soldiers and slaves with Hernan de Soto and other expeditions. Spanish settlers at Santa Elena were undoubtedly Catholic. Although English colonists were not Catholic, and there were laws prohibiting this faith, by the eighteenth century there were a handful of Catholics in Charleston. There is some evidence that African slaves imported into Charles Town in the early years of the slave trade may have been Catholics, converted in Africa by Portuguese slave traders.3 That small population grew appreciably with the influx of French refugees from Acadia in 1755 and a later flood of refugees, black and white, from the Haitian revolution in Santo Domingo in 1793. It is possible these West Indian slaves had been baptized and kept the faith along with their masters.4

The First Bishop
Bishop John England had many priorities when he arrived in Charleston in 1820. He founded a Catholic newspaper, the United States Catholic Miscellany; he established the cathedral church, St. Finbar; he opened the Seminary of St. John the Baptist to train native clergy; he dispatched what priests he had to minister to the surrounding plantations; and he founded an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy.

St. Mary’s Church (established 1789) on Hasell Street and the Cathedral of St. Finbar (established 1821) on Broad Street were the first two Catholic churches in Charleston. Because Catholics who lived outside the city limits had to walk a considerable distance to receive the sacraments, they requested another church in the Neck area. A group of about 50 black and white Catholics met in 1837 to form the new parish of St. Patrick’s Church on the corner of St. Philip and Radcliffe Streets. At the blessing of the new edifice, after Bishop John England had preached, the black parishioners remained to sing hymns and offer their prayers for the occasion.5

The colonial prejudice against Catholics did not disappear in the early decades of the new Republic. If anything, anti-Catholic sentiment intensified in the years following the Revolution. Combating hostility to the faith, winning converts, and ministering to his small flock of black and white Catholics thoroughly occupied Bishop England. In the summer of 1835 he opened a school for free blacks in Charleston. Taught by two seminarians and two nuns, the school quickly enrolled eighty students within a few weeks. Pro slavery Charlestonians, however, threatened to lynch the Bishop if he did not close his school. England saw the situation as a threat to Catholics as well as to blacks. After a two day standoff, he reluctantly agreed to close the school on condition that all religious schools for free blacks close as well as his Catholic school. England feared the anti-abolitionist, who were also anti-Catholic, would do harm to other nascent Catholic institutions in South Carolina. England vowed he would reopen the school when the political climate cooled.6 Of course, the climate did not cool until after the Civil War. The school may have been short-lived, but John England’s desire to minister to all of His flock was undimmed.

Before The Civil War
In ante-bellum South Carolina there were many constraints to ministering the black Catholics, the most important of which was the opposition of whites to evangelization. Whites feared that blacks who read the Bible would also read newspapers and contraband antislavery literature. Another constraint was the paucity of priests and the great distances they had to travel. The few Catholics outside Charleston or Columbia, the state’s capital, black or white, encountered a priest only once or twice a year, if then. This isolation forced Catholics to rely on each other to keep the faith alive. Some Catholic plantation owners instructed their slaves in the catechism and conducted regular religious services in the absences of clergy and formal churches. One example of this lay evangelization was Natalie Delage Sumter, the French and Catholic wife of Thomas Sumter, Jr. She felt it was her duty to instruct her household in Catholic practices. She felt the spiritual health of her slaves was as important as their physical health. She held class every Sunday afternoon. In her diary, she wrote, “I had 22 Negroes for catechism and spoke to the old Negroes, laid down for an hour and sent them home with a good dinner.”7 Natalie used the catechism John England wrote for the religious instruction of all Catholics of the diocese.

Bishop Patrick Lynch, third bishop of Charleston, was a slave owner. He defended slavery, as did every other Southern bishop, but he did not consider it to be a “positive good,” in the language of other apologists, for the institution. Lynch insisted that masters, including himself, had grave responsibilities with respect to humane treatment and conscientious religious instruction of their slaves., Although adult slaves were free to practice whatever religion they preferred, he said Catholic slave owners were bound in charity to baptize slave children and instruct them in the catechism, a plan he followed himself.8 In 1866 Bishop Lynch purchased what had been a Jewish Synagogue on Wentworth Street, Charleston, and there he established St. Peter’s Church as the first parish for the newly emancipated black Catholics. St. Peter’s was dedicated in January 1869.9 During the dedication sermon, Bishop Lynch noted that his predecessor, Bishop Ignatius A. Reynolds, had proposed a parish for blacks in the 1850s but lack of money prevented it.10

Civil War Aftermath
Indeed, lack of money hampered many of the bishop’s plans. After the ravages of war and the 1861 fire, the Diocese of Charleston was deeply in debt. The people and the parishes were desperately poor. In spite of this, Pope Pius IX required positive measures on behalf of newly emancipated blacks. The Josephites took up the apostolate to African Americans in the 1870s. In 1874 the fathers had charge of St. Peter’s in Charleston, but a shortage of personnel forced them to abandon the ministry after a few years. Another religious order, the Pious Society of the Mission took over St. Peter’s in late 1892. Bishop Henry P. Northrop assigned all ministry among black Catholics to this order.

The Vatican And Racism
Throughout the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, the Popes spoke against slavery, the slave trade, and the neglected condition of African Americans. In 1839 Pope Gregory XVI condemned the slave trade. In 1884 the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith, charged with coordinating and directing all missionary activity in the world, insisted American bishops address the “Negro problem.” In 1903 the Propagation pointed out the inertia of American bishops on the issue, and in 1904 Pope Pius X promised prompt action on behalf of American blacks. Throughout these decades the Holy See maintained pressure on American bishops to demonstrate better efforts to minister to blacks. By 1920 Pope Benedict XV requested a native clergy and in 1926 Pope Pius XI repeated the request in his encyclical, Rerum Ecclesiae.11

Parallel to the pressure from Rome for black priests and greater ministry to blacks, black laity increasingly insisted on their right to participate in the Catholic church. Black Catholics found a voice in the decades after Civil War and Reconstruction. James Spencer, for example, was a free black before the Civil War and a member of the Reconstruction legislature from Abbeville.12Spencer was a vestry man at St. Peter’s in Charleston and, like his father James Spencer, Sr., a prominent leader in the black Catholic community in Charleston. The younger Spencer played a significant part in the history of black Catholics in the United States when he presided over the fourth meeting of the Congress of Colored Catholics in Chicago in 1893. In a speech there, Spencer addressed the question of separate parishes for people of different nationalities. All should have access to the church, he asserted, and the church should be open to the needs and wishes of each. Thus the bishops should establish national parishes in order to encourage diverse national groups, but separate churches for blacks should not be a pretext for discrimination and segregation.13

Twentieth Century
Although restrictive laws and social pressures continued to handicap blacks in the early decades of the twentieth century, an era of lynching and fierce discrimination, black Catholic laymen pressed for their own priests and parishes. By 1920 only nine black priests had been ordained in all the United States of America.14 Those numbers grew slowly, but black parishes, even in South Carolina, were somewhat easier to come by. On April 11, 1880, Immaculate Conception Chapel, Charleston, was dedicated by Bishop Lynch, becoming the second black parish. The chapel was built on one of six lots purchased by the diocese in 1843, “to be held in trust for the use of the colored Roman Catholic population of the City of Charleston…as a cemetery or Burial ground for the said colored Slaves or free…”.15 This parish, comprising the chapel, Immaculate Conception School, and the St. John’s Cemetery, was staffed by the Holy Ghost Fathers, another religious order dedicated to ministering to African Americans. By the 1930s the black Catholic community of Columbia had grown to such an extent that in 1935 Bishop Emmet M. Walsh established Blessed Martin de Porres Parish near Benedict College and Allen University, historically black colleges. This parish was staffed by the Order of Preachers, popularly known as Dominican priests. The Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa began the school shortly thereafter.

On the national level there were many Catholics active in the interracial movement. The Jesuit Fr. John La Farge, for example, worked tirelessly for that goal.16 Pope Pius XII continued to call for evangelization of Blacks and it is clear the bishops and laity in South Carolina were responding to the appeal. In 1939 the pontiff reaffirmed his affection for blacks in the encyclical Sertum Laetitiae. In that same year the Oblates of Mary Immaculate opened a mission for black Catholics in Sumter. By 1941 this mission became the parish of St. Jude. In the same year, St. Ann’s, a parish for black Catholics in Florence was ready.

By 1943 American Catholic bishops emphasized in a pastoral letter the obligation to recognize the political, educational, economic, and social rights of blacks.17 Black parishes and missions continued to grow in the Palmetto state as a result of the encouragement of the Holy See and the growing numbers of black Catholics. By the end of the 1940s there were also churches for blacks in Kingstree, Orangeburg, Rock Hill, Greenville, Anderson and Aiken and other places.

The push for integration advanced on many fronts in the decades after World War II. Against great odds, American Catholic bishops worked hard to improve race relations. In South Carolina, the bishop and the clergy fought for racial justice in a difficult political climate. Father Joseph Bernardin, as Chancellor of the Diocese of Charleston (later to become Archbishop for Chicago), noted that it was a challenge for the church to put those principles of racial justice into practice in South Carolina. “With complete racial justice as our ideal, we shall prudently, but firmly, work toward the accomplishment of this ideal.18 Bernardin acknowledged that school integration was slow. In 1961 Bishop Paul J. Hallinan addressed the school desegregation issue in his lenten pastoral letter in which he stated that Catholic students, regardless of color, would be admitted to Catholic schools as soon as it could be done safely.19 Bishop Hallinan was criticized in the national press for his efforts.

When Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler took office he made changes that affected black Catholics. In Charleston he merged St. Peter’s Church with St. Patrick’s in 1967. Father Egbert Figaro of St. Patrick’s became the first black priest in the diocese.20 The bishop integrated Immaculate Conception School and Bishop England High School in 1968. The 1969 graduating class was the first integrated class at the high school. In Orangeburg, Holy Trinity and Christ Our King merged in 1967.

Fight For Social Justice
The 1969 Charleston hospital strike became an important test for social justice issues in South Carolina. The strike began with hospital workers at the teaching hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina on March 20, 1969. Hospital workers at the Charleston County Hospital struck as well. The workers insisted on their right to organize for better pay and work conditions. The Medical University, a state institution, insisted it did not have the authority to bargain with a union. Most of the striking hospital workers were poorly paid black nonprofessional personnel. National union organizers quickly joined the protest, as did Ralph Abernathy of Southern Christian Leadership Council. The volatile local crisis was exacerbated by the nationwide riots, assassinations and protests. Governor Robert McNair called in National Guard troops to keep order. A curfew was in force. After a month of standoff, a Concerned Clergy Committee, formed by leading ministers of Charleston, including Catholic priests, offered to mediate. Bishop Unterkoefler, against considerable opposition, maintained the Catholic church’s position that laboring people have a right to organize and should be encouraged to do so. To the clergy and the strikers involved, the struggle was an important social justice issue.

After 100 days the strike at the Medical University Hospital ended. After 113 days, the strike against the Charleston County Hospital ended. In the end the striking workers won the right to a workable grievance procedure and better personnel policies. Most were rehired by their respective institutions. 21 A similarly important result may have been the prominent stand Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler took in favor of social justice.

Bishop David B. Thompson’s recent episcopacy, 1990-1999, is already recognized as an era of building bridges of unity. He was among the leaders who successfully advocated furling the Confederate flag atop the South Carolina Statehouse. Bishop Thompson also served on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on African American Catholics.

During his continuing conversation with Catholics of African heritage, Bishop Robert J. Baker called for immediate action in developing a history of the Diocese of Charleston’s African American parishes. This essay is one small step in that direction.

Today the Diocese of Charleston has an Office of Ethnic Affairs, established in 2002 by Bishop Baker and headed by Kathleen Merritt. Its mission statement:

The Office of Ethnic Ministries is committed to organizing ways for the church as a whole to celebrate its ethnic diversity and recognize that diversity as a strength of the church. We are focused on bridging the gap between those in the mainstream culture and those who feel marginalized from the church because of ethnic or cultural division.

It stands as an example of the firm commitment of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston to principles and practice of social justice in South Carolina today.

  1. Richard C. Madden, Catholics in South Carolina, a record (New York: University Press of America, 1985), pp. 54 – 155.
  2. Cyprian Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (New York: Crossroad, 1993), pp. 209 – 210; Clisby Williams, “St. James Church Approaching 150th Anniversary,” Press and Standard, July 3, 1975, p. 9A.
  3. John K. Thornton, “African Dimensions of the Stono Rebellion,” American Historical Review 96 (1991): pp. 1101 – 1113.
  4. Madden, p. 26.
  5. Joseph Laurence O’Brien, A Chronicle history of Saint Patrick’s Parish, Charleston, South Carolina, 1837 – 1937 (Charleston, SC), pp. 36 – 38.
  6. Peter Guilday, The Life and Times of John England, (New York: The America Press, 1927), II, p. 152; The Charleston Courier, August 11, 1835, p.8.
  7. Thomas Tisdale, Lady of the High Hills, Natalie Delage Sumter (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press), 2001, p.129.
  8. David C. R. Heisser, “Bishop Lynch’s People: clave holding by a South Carolina prelate,” South Carolina Historical Magazine (102):3, p. 238 – 262.
  9. Clifford Legerton, Historic Churches of Charleston, South Carolina (Charleston: Legerton, 1966), p. 74. Legerton has photos of the synagogue building was a Catholic cross on it.
  10. Madden, p. 104.
  11. Stephen Ochs, Desegregating the Altar: the Josephites and the struggle for Black Priests, 1871 – 1960 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press), p. 280 – 284, et. seq.
  12. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Volume I Session Lists, 1692 – 1973 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1974), p. 420.
  13. Davis, p. 186.
  14. Ochs, p. 456.
  15. Catholic Diocese of Charleston Archives. Deed, June 10, 1843, Alexander Black to the Very Reverend Richard S. Baker, Administrator of the Diocese of Charleston.
  16. David W. Southern, John La Farge and the limits of Catholic interracialism, 1911 – 1963 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press).
  17. Ochs, p. 366.
  18. Catholic Diocese of Charleston Archives. Priest Vertical File: “Joseph Bernardin”, Letter, Joseph L. Bernardin to Don Renfrew, Jr., June 4, 1959.
  19. “Pastoral Letter Lent 1961”, Catholic Banner, February 26, 1961, p. 1A.
  20. An annual of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, Charleston, South Carolina, 1938 – 1988, supplement number two (1988). For a parallel story of evangelization in a sister city see Gary Wray McDonogh, Black and Catholic in Savannah, Georgia (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1993).
  21. Catholic Diocese of Charleston Archives. Charleston Hospital Strike folders.