Catholicism in South Carolina and the Founding of Saint Mary’s Church
St Mary’s Church was founded in 1852, but Catholicism came to South Carolina as early as 1526, when Spanish Dominican priests celebrated Mass in the Low Country. The recorded history of Catholics in South Carolina, however, begins only in 1786, when an Italian priest who was a passenger on a ship that called at Charleston Harbor celebrated Mass in a private home for twelve people. Three years after that Mass, St Mary’s Church on Hasell Street in Charleston was established on 24 August 1789 as the first Catholic parish in the Carolinas and Georgia, a territory now embracing five dioceses. From that modest beginning, Catholics began to settle throughout South Carolina, and on 11 July 1820 Pope Pius VII canonically erected the Diocese of Charleston and appointed Father John England of Cork, Ireland to be the founding bishop. He was consecrated in Ireland on 21 September 1820 and arrived in Charleston to take possession of his diocese on 30 December 1820.
In 1821, Bishop England erected St Peter’s Church in Columbia, and from that base, missionary priests began to travel throughout the Midlands and Upstate regions of South Carolina. By the mid-nineteenth century there were enough Catholics in the Upstate to require organized pastoral care, and in 1852 the second Bishop of Charleston, Ignatius A. Reynolds, established the Greenville Missions at St Mary’s under the care of priests based in Columbia. The Greenville Missions, with its administrative center at St Mary’s, embraced all of twelve counties (Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Greenville, Greenwood, Laurens, McCormick, Newberry, Oconee, Pickens, Spartanburg, and Union) and for that reason, St Mary’s is reckoned the mother church of Catholicism in Upstate South Carolina. The first Mass ever celebrated in Greenville was offered by the founding pastor, Father Jeremiah J. O’Connell, in the home of the Keenan family at Main and Elford Streets, and the sideboard which served as the altar for that Mass is kept in the church office to this day.
For twenty years, the pastors of St Mary’s were itinerants who lived in many places, but in 1872 the first resident pastor, Father Aloisius M. Folchi, settled in Greenville and built the first permanent church at Hampton Avenue and Lloyd Street, four blocks west of the present campus. The church was consecrated on 15 October 1876 by the third Bishop of Charleston, Patrick N. Lynch, and was dedicated to Our Lady of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. From the beginning, however, the parish was always referred to simply as St Mary’s.
In 1885 the sixth pastor of St Mary’s, Father J.J. Monaghan (later the Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware), purchased the land for the present church and moved the original building, a wooden structure, to the new location. Fifteen years later, Father Andrew Keene Gwynn became the ninth pastor of St Mary’s, an office he would hold for fifty-two years. Father Gwynn immediately began raising money for the construction of a new brick church, and after the original church was moved a second time, construction was started in 1903. On 6 November 1904 the fourth Bishop of Charleston, Henry P. Northrop, consecrated the new St Mary’s Church, which was designed by a young architect who was also a Benedictine monk of Belmont Abbey, Dom Michael McInerny, OSB.
The tenth pastor of St Mary’s, Father Charles J. Baum, inherited a parish community then twice the size of the parish church. A capital campaign for “A Greater St Mary’s Church” was begun in 1954, and Father Baum retained the same Father McInerny to expand the church he had designed 50 years before. The enlarged and redecorated church was dedicated on 4 November 1956 by Samuel Cardinal Stritch, the Archbishop of Chicago. The two builders of the present St Mary’s Church, Monsignor Gwynn and Monsignor Baum, served as pastor for a total of 73 years, and these two distinguished priests both lie in the small graveyard at the door of the church they built.
During and after World War II, the Catholic population of Greenville grew rapidly, and new parishes were opened in the original territory of St Mary’s to accommodate the new arrivals. St Anthony’s (1939), Our Lady of the Rosary (1952), St Elizabeth Ann Seton (1972), Blessed Trinity (1974), Prince of Peace (1976), St Mary Magdalene (1989), St Rafka (2002), and San Sebastian (2012) now help serve the more than 45,000 Catholics who live in Greenville County. Even with all the new parishes in Greenville County, St Mary’s has continued to grow, and in the 1990’s the parish campus was expanded and improved by our fifteenth pastor, Father D. Anthony Droze. During his service Sacred Heart Hall (1996), the Baum Center (1999) and Francis Field (2001) were dedicated, and Gallivan Hall, which was built in 1930, was completely renovated.
During the service of our twelfth pastor, Father Donald J. Gorski, St Mary’s became the home of the first regularly scheduled Spanish Mass in the Diocese of Charleston. Today we have the support of a Spanish-speaking priest and permanent deacon who serve a large community of Spanish-speaking parishioners, primarily Colombians and Mexicans. Outreach to the Spanish language community remains one of our primary fields of service.
Our sixteenth and present pastor, Father Jay Scott Newman, began his service to St Mary’s in 2001, just six months before the 150th anniversary of the parish. One hundred years after its construction and almost fifty years its after expansion, our simple Gothic church was in dire need of restoration. Accordingly, a capital campaign was launched, and from January to November 2002, Masses were celebrated in the Baum Center and in Gallivan Hall while the church was restored. On 4 November 2002, the 46th anniversary of the dedication of the Greater St Mary’s and two days before the 98th anniversary of the original dedication, the people of the parish returned to their beautifully restored church with a Solemn Mass celebrated by the twelfth Bishop of Charleston, Robert J. Baker.
After the restoration of the church, a dramatic expansion and complete renewal of our campus began. The middle school building was renovated and renamed Pazdan Hall, the primary school building was renovated and renamed Mercy Hall, the land on the western boundary of our campus was purchased and cleared to provide space for future growth, a new rectory and convent were acquired a few miles from our main campus, and a columbarium of 600 niches was built next to the church and dedicated in 2013, along with two public spaces of great beauty: Miller Square and Grace Grotto.
Since 1900 the primary apostolate of St Mary’s Church has been its parish school. Monsignor Gwynn founded the school as Sacred Heart Academy and entrusted it to the care of the Ursuline Sisters, who remained until 1933 when the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, based in Charleston, came to provide the principal and all teachers in the school. The first permanent school building was dedicated in 1930, and from that time the school was called simply St Mary’s Catholic School. In 2006, the Dominican Sisters of St Cecelia from Nashville, Tennessee assumed leadership of the school, and today they provide the principal and three teaching Sisters to work alongside our dedicated lay teachers and staff. St Mary’s Catholic School runs from K-3 through the 8th grade, and in 2009 our school was honored for its excellence with the Blue Ribbon Award of the US Department of Education.
Since our founding in 1852, St Mary’s has been served by sixteen pastors:
1852 to 1868 Father J.J. O’Connell
1868 to 1869 Father Thomas C. McMahon
1872 to 1877 Father Aloisius M. Folchi
1877 to 1879 Father Frederick A. Schmitz
1880 to 1881 Father J.J. Woolahan
1882 to 1887 Father John J. Monaghan (Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware from 1897 to 1925)
1887 to 1893 Father August Hirschmeyer
1894 to 1899 Father Joseph D. Budds
1900 to 1952 Monsignor Andrew Keene Gwynn
1952 to 1973 Monsignor Charles J. Baum
1973 to 1976 Father William J. Croghan
1976 to 1983 Father Donald J. Gorski
1983 to 1994 Monsignor Frederick J. Hopwood
1994 to 1995 Monsignor Robert J. Kelly
1996 to 2001 Father D. Anthony Droze
2001 to present Father Jay Scott Newman