November 30, 2016

Once Forgotten But Always Faithful: The Catholic Community of Ritter, South Carolina

Sacred Places Catholic Hill Church Interior

photo by: Bill Fitzpatrick

St. James the Greater Mission Church is known locally as Catholic Hill.

After the Civil War, the newly freed African-American community of Catholic Hill Church in South Carolina were left without a church or a priest, but they nevertheless stayed true to their convictions.

In 1826, a few Irish-American families, tired of the anti-Catholic sentiments they encountered in the port city of Charleston, left to start life anew roughly 40 miles west in tiny Ritter. After acquiring land, they established St. James the Greater Mission Church, or, as the locals call it, “Catholic Hill.” As was the custom of the day, enslaved people adopted the religion of those they served, thus expanding the Catholic faith to the area’s African-American population.

At the time, a belief that Catholics had more allegiance to the pope than the president meant that many such congregations were not welcomed across much of the country, particularly the mostly Protestant South. Into this milieu entered the remarkable Bishop John England of Charleston.

In 1826, Bishop England, fed up with the sneers and doubts of some in his community, traveled to Washington, D.C., to address President John Adams and members of the United States Congress on the relationship between church and state. Seven years later, he traveled the rough road between Charleston and Ritter to meet the congregation of Catholic Hill, and to dedicate their new church.

The original structure, blessed by Bishop England, was lost in an 1856 fire, the first of a series of setbacks for the unlikely congregation.

“After the fire, the church was not rebuilt. Times in the South were just too uncertain," says Davetta Greene, the congregation’s current historian. "Nobody was quite sure what might happen."

After the Civil War, the Irish community never returned to the town, taking with them their fiscal and physical support for the church. The Catholic diocese forgot that the small congregation even existed. The African-American community that remained would have to rebuild their congregation on their own.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, most of those who were formerly enslaved across the South formed their own churches or denominations. This did not occur at Catholic Hill, due in part to the leadership of Vincent de Paul Davis. By acting as lay minister at the time, he kept the Catholic congregation intact.

Finally, in 1892, Catholic Hill's congregation was rediscovered by a priest, Father Daniel Berberich, who happened to be traveling in the area. It became his mission to serve the long-forgotten community. Under his leadership, a schoolhouse and new church were built.

“Life has never been easy for the people of the church,” Greene says, as we walk toward the newly refurbished schoolhouse. “In the early 1930s, a tornado severely damaged the 1892 church. Thanks to the generosity of a couple from the North, we were able to rebuild.”

Inside the schoolhouse, I walked around the first floor, paying particular attention to the historic photographs pinned to the bulletin boards. I laughed at one, an old black-and-white photograph of 50 scared uniformed kids in a classroom with one nun firmly in command. As I explained to Greene, I, too, attended a Catholic school in the era when a single nun could control 50 or 60 kids.

A decade or so ago, the school building that had not been used since the 1970s was in dangerously poor shape. It took years to raise enough money, but today, a restoration is nearly complete. With that success, the community has now turned its attention back to the further preservation of the church.

I could teach the history of South Carolina through the collective histories of our churches, but I could teach more than that through the history of Catholic Hill and its congregation alone. From the time of slavery to today, theirs is a universal story of faith and perseverance, made the richer by its now-restored buildings and people such as Greene, who have labored to preserve its most magnificent and unique history.

By: Bill Fitzpatrick

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