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A Brief History of St. Mary's Church
Catholicism came to South Carolina as early as 1526, when Spanish Dominican priests celebrated Mass in the Low Country, but the recorded history of Catholics in South Carolina 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. To this day, those twelve counties comprise the Piedmont Deanery of the Diocese of Charleston, 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 of simple 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-one 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 in an event described in the secular press as the most impressive religious ceremony ever to occur in Greenville and which was attended by representatives of the downtown Protestant congregations.
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 hired the renowned Benedictine architect Father Michael McInerny, O.S.B. of Belmont Abbey to design the expansion of the church. 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 lie together in the small cemetery at the door of the church they built.
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), and St. Mary Magdalene (1989) now help serve the more than 25,000 Catholics who live in Greenville County. Despite the opening of new parishes, though, St. Mary's has continued to grow, and in the 1990's the parish campus was dramatically expanded and improved by our fifteenth pastor, Father D. Anthony Droze.
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 Upstate. 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 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 first construction and almost fifty years after expansion, our simple Gothic church was in dire need of restoration. Accordingly, a $2 million capital campaign was launched, and from January to November 2002, Masses were celebrated in the Monsignor Baum Gymnasium 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 the beautifully restored church with a Solemn Mass celebrated by the twelfth Bishop of Charleston, Robert J. Baker. In attendance at that Mass were the pastors of Christ Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, and First Presbyterian Church of Greenville.
In addition to the church, there are six other buildings on campus: the rectory (1914); the first school building (1930); the second school building (1962); the church office (1968); Sacred Heart Hall (1996); and the Monsignor Charles J. Baum Gymnasium (1999). The Jamile J. Francis Athletic Field was dedicated in 2001. St. Mary's Church is now home to over 6,200 registered parishioners and conducts a thriving school of 350 students, and at the threshold of our fourth half-century, we are planning to expand the campus again, to restore our middle school building, and to build a new church of over 1,200 seats to make room for our constantly growing parish family.