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The Catholic faith has an interesting history in South Carolina. Although the first local diocese was not officially established until Pope Pius VII incorporated the Diocese of Charleston on July 11, 1820, local tradition holds that Catholics quietly practiced their faith in the area long before that.
Spanish priests may have celebrated Masses in the area as early as 1526, and a local tradition holds that for years a French priest made a trip on horseback from Canada to New Orleans in the fall and returned in the spring, stopping along the way to offer Mass in Catholic homes. There is also a record of an Italian priest gathering local residents for Mass in Charleston in 1786.
The first bishop of the area was John England, who was born in Cork, Ireland, and appointed to his episcopacy in 1820. His new diocese comprised 142,000 square miles spread over three states: North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. There were only two churches, one in Charleston and one in Augusta, Georgia, and only six priests available to serve the handful of scattered Catholics.
Centuries of growth brought the Catholic Church in South Carolina to its present population of over 5.2 million, about 10% of total residents. There are a number of special holy places in South Carolina, and here are some of the ones you won’t want to miss.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Charleston
The beautiful architecture of this Gothic Revival cathedral is well worth a visit, and don’t miss the rare Franz Mayer & Co. stained-glass windows. You can spend time in prayer at chapels dedicated to various saints and visit the graves of former Charleston bishops in the lower church crypt.
Mepkin Abbey, Moncks Corner
Mepkin Abbey is a community of Roman Catholic monks established in 1949 on the site of the historic Mepkin Plantation located on the Cooper River, north of Charleston, South Carolina. Founded by the monks of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the brothers of Mepkin belong to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, popularly known as Trappists.
Following The Rule of St. Benedict, the monks at Mepkin Abbey devote their lives to prayer, spiritual study, work and hospitality. Living by the work of their hands, the monks provide a livelihood for themselves and the poor.
There is so much to see and do here, from walking the beautiful Nancy Bryan Luce Gardens to touring the vast collection in the Clare Boothe Luce Library. Monks offer daily tours, and the annual Creche Festival in December is a popular local attraction. You can also participate in a silent retreat here, and the annual summer Monastic Institute offers men the opportunity to come and participate fully in the monks’ way of life for a month.
Basilica of St. Peter, Columbia
The need for a Catholic church in South Carolina’s Midlands became apparent with the infusion of Irish workers in the early 1800s. In 1821, Bishop John England sent an Irish born priest, Fr. James Wallace, to minister to the Catholics of South Carolina, and in 1824, the cornerstone for the first church was laid. As the only church in the area at the time, St. Peter’s Catholic Church became known as the “Mother Church of the Midlands.”
Decades of growth followed, and the present large and beautiful church was built in 1906. In 2018, the Vatican declared St. Peter’s a Minor Basilica. The church is known for its historical significance, liturgical activities and vibrant parish life.
St. Clare of Assisi, Daniel Island
St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church was formally established on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, with geographical boundaries encompassing Daniel Island and the Cainhoy peninsula. Although it’s a relatively very new parish, the church is beautifully built, and the parish has a lively and active calendar of formation and ministries for all ages.
St. Mary of the Annunciation, Charleston
The first Catholic parish established in the Carolinas and Georgia, St. Mary of the Annunciation Catholic Church was incorporated in 1791. The current building, opened in 1839, is the third structure to house the congregation on this site and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior features historic paintings and murals that hold artistic and historical significance.
And one last bonus site…
OUR LADY OF SOUTH CAROLINA, KINGSTREE
One of only a few pilgrimage sites in the southern United States, this holy site is not affiliated with a parish but stands alone as a diocesan shrine. It was established in 2003 by Father Stanley Smolenski, SPMA, with the blessing of Bishop Robert J. Baker, and houses over 200 relics collected by Father Smolenski during his three years of study in Rome. You can learn more about the history of this pilgrimage site here.