Once Forgotten but Always Faithful
The African-American Catholics of Ritter, South Carolina
The newly free African-Americans of Catholic Hill Church had every reason to leave the faith that their ancestor's masters had once taught them, but they didn’t. Abandoned by the white people who had created the plantations, and then forgotten by the Catholic diocese, they nevertheless stayed true to their convictions.
In 1826, a few Irish-American families, tired of Charleston’s anti-Catholic sentiments, left that city to start life anew in tiny Ritter. After acquiring lands and slaves, they established St. James the Greater Mission Church, or, as the locals call it, “Catholic Hill.” As was the custom of the day, slaves adopted the religion of their masters, thus, in this case, creating a southern rarity: Black Catholics.
Catholics, due to the widely held belief that they had more allegiance to the pope than the president, were not welcomed across much of the country, particularly the mostly protestant South. Into this milieu we meet the remarkable Bishop John England of Charleston, a man who has a prominent place both in our national history, and the story of Catholic Hill.
In 1826, Bishop England of Charleston, fed up with the sneers and doubts, traveled to Washington D.C. to address the very skeptical 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 structure blessed by Bishop England was lost in an 1856 fire, the first of a series of setbacks for the unlikely congregation. As Davetta Greene the church historian shared, “After the fire, the church was not rebuilt. Times in the South were just too uncertain. Nobody was quite sure what might happen."
After the war, the newly freed slaves faced a number of challenges. The Irish never returned to Ritter. The Catholic diocese forgot that the small community even existed. The newly freed African-Americans, men and women who before the war could not be taught to read or write, would have to rebuild their community under the most trying of circumstance.
In the early years of the post-war era, most of the former slaves formed their own churches or denominations, such as the popular African-Methodist-Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. Such did not occur at Catholic Hill, due in part to the leadership of Vincent de Paul Davis. By acting as lay minister, he kept the Catholic faith alive.
In 1892,Catholic Hill was “rediscovered” by a priest, Father Daniel Berberich, who happened to be traveling in the area. It then 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,” Davetta shared, as we walked 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 that have been pinned to the bulletin boards. I laughed at one, an old black and white photograph of fifty scared uniformed black kids in a classroom with one white nun firmly in command. As I explained to Davetta, I, too, attended a Catholic school in the era when a single nun could control fifty or sixty kids. But that is where the similarity ended.
My Irish American ancestors had but one obstacle to overcome in their efforts for acceptance, and that was their religion. Davetta’s great-grandmother and her descendants would have to overcome much more.
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, the restoration is nearly complete. With that success, they have now turned their attention back to the further preservation of the church.
I could teach the history of South Carolina through the collective histories of our churches, such is what I share with those who ask. But I could teach more than that through the history of Catholic Hill. From the days of bondage to the time of freedom, theirs is a universal story of faith and perseverance, made the richer by its now restored buildings and people such as Davetta, who have labored to preserve its most magnificent and unique history.