CATHOLIC HILL — Two bright red buildings stand out among miles of soggy swamp that lines Ritter Road in Colleton County.

They’re a sure sign you’ve made it to Catholic Hill, a small settlement about 40 miles southwest of Charleston.

The buildings — a steepled church and an old school house – belong to Saint James the Greater Catholic Mission. They’ve stood the test of time, but black spots and wear on their red cedar-shake show they’re in need of some care, as well.

Inside the old school house, the staircase that once stood is gone and scaffolding sits along the walls. Pine wood used to line the floor. But now it, too, is gone and its disappearance has shaken the very core of the church.

A thief or thieves stole the heap of wood that had been salvaged from that old school house floor as part of a long-awaited renovation. For the congregation, the loss is as deep-rooted as their history.

“The freed slaves who built that school house, their sweat and their blood is in that wood. The members of the church are descendants of those slaves,” Father Jeffrey Kendall, the church’s pastor, said. “It has such tremendous meaning for us. That is why it’s so heartbreaking for us.”

A history of survival

Saint James the Greater Catholic Mission is one of the oldest churches in South Carolina, spanning generations. Throughout its nearly two centuries, the church has been built and rebuilt.

It sits in an unincorporated section of Colleton County and was started by Irish plantation owners who settled there in the early 19th century. The church building was erected around 1826. Bishop John England, the first Bishop of Charleston, dedicated the church in 1833.

Plantation owners and their slaves would worship there. Those slaves and their descendants would later become the life line of that congregation.

In 1856, a fire that started in a nearby field destroyed the church. Then the Civil War stalled any notions of rebuilding.

When the war ended and the slaves were set free, they kept worshipping, and a layman led prayers.

“The former slaves kept practicing the faith all by themselves with no priest,” Kendall said.

In the 1870s, the freed slaves built the school house, according to Kendall. “They built it on their own,” Kendall said.

In 1897, a priest traveling through the area heard about some black Catholics in the area and discovered them in Catholic Hill. The priest re-established the congregation and served the parish until 1909.

Around that time a new church was finally built on the site of the old church. But it wouldn’t last long. In the 1930s, a tornado spawned by a hurricane destroyed the building. The old school house, however, was not damaged.

A new church was built, the third one to stand on Catholic Hill, and the school house was utilized to teach children until the 1970s. About 12 years ago, the school building was in such disrepair the church had to cease all of the activities they held inside of it.

The congregation started raising money to renovate the building. It’s been a work in progress for more than a decade, according to Kendall. They started the renovation last week. One of the first tasks was to pull out and salvage the wood from the first floor of the building.

The congregation had big plans for that pine. Little did they know, another obstacle would soon appear in their ongoing struggle to keep the church’s deep-rooted history alive.

Stolen wood

The wood inside the school building was special to the congregation. It was heart pine, the densest, prettiest, most durable pine wood.

“We were going to make a new altar, an ambo, (similar to a podium), and a baptismal font,” he said. Those items were going to be placed inside the main church building as a reminder of the congregation’s endurance. But those plans were ruined early one recent morning when the trailer holding that precious cargo was stolen from its spot outside the church, according to Kendall.

“They stole wood destined for the most important part of the church,” Kendall said. “It’s irreplaceable.”

Kendall doesn’t think the culprit realizes the magnitude of the crime.

A report was filed with the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office on June 29. But the trailer and the wood remain missing.

“I’m pretty angry,” said Kendall. “Either they don’t know the value of the wood and dumped it somewhere or they know the value of the wood and they’re going to try to use it themselves.”

Geraldine “Gerry” Jenkins is a church member who married into the Washington family about 35 years ago. Washington’s ancestors were among the slaves that kept the church going for more than a century, she said.

She hopes somewhere out there, their wood remains intact and that someone’s good conscience will help steer the wood back.

“They stole a part of our life. They didn’t destroy it,” she said. “We’ve come too far to be destroyed. But they took a part of our heritage away and we would truly like to have it back.”

Zach Fox contributed to this report.