ROCK HILL — Melvin “Snow” Roseboro worships and prays at the same two churches every Sunday: one just steps from the Emmett Scott Recreation Center and the other one “right around the corner” in southern Rock Hill.
But the first stop for Roseboro, a Presbyterian, is always, at least for the past three years, St. Mary Catholic Church on Crawford Road, a church that started six decades ago with five members but now boasts 417 families.
“I never miss a Sunday,” said Roseboro, a former wrestler, bodyguard and 18-year police officer with the Rock Hill Police Department. “I love being here. The first time I walked into this church, I felt like I was coming home.”
That home, he said, is where he gets a welcoming hug, kiss or handshake from parishioners without fail each week, though he’s not a baptized Catholic.
“We’re a hugging church,” said Gwendolyn Finley, a St. Mary’s member and church spokeswoman.
On a recent Sunday, nearly 200 parishioners at the “hugging church” gathered in the sanctuary to celebrate 68 years in Rock Hill’s Crawford Road community with an African-style liturgy meant to celebrate the church’s diversity and Catholicism’s roots and influence in Africa.
Signaling the beginning of the worship service, children marched down the aisles to the rapid beating of drums, sprinkling water on the carpet and caressing the floors with two long brooms meant to cleanse the church and ward off evil spirits.
Members clapped and shouted phrases of celebration. Others, adorned in traditional African garb, watched intently.
Marc Ganao, his wife, two sons and mother-in-law sat on a set of back pews, tapping their toes and moving their heads to get a look at the procession as it made its way to the altar.
The beats and chants were nothing new for Ganao, whose family hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sunday’s ceremony didn’t stray from tradition.
“It’s pretty much the same,” he said, although some of the songs and readings might be a little different.
For the next several minutes, the service would continue. Members kneeled to pray and recited homilies. They sang hymns and songs led by the church’s gospel choir. One-by-one, they swallowed pieces of “the body of Christ” and sipped “the blood of Christ” during Communion.
When the time was right, they stood and turned to each other, offering kisses, hugs and handshakes as the “sign of peace.”
After children read Scriptures from the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament and Luke and Galatians in the New Testament, Father Agustin Guzman, the church’s parish administrator, gave messages to elaborate on their meanings.
“In the face of terrible things sometimes, Satan tries to convince us that there is no hope,” he said. “We need to trust the word of the Lord.”
He urged church members to “continue to bring Christ to those who (don’t know) Christ,” he said. “Provide them with hope.”
When Father Edward Wahl, a priest at the Oratory, founded St. Mary, there were only five practicing black Catholics in Rock Hill.
“Father Edward Wahl’s original vision was to bring Christ to those who had not received him and to evangelize among the African-American community,” Guzman said. “Because of Christ, we are all united, no matter how we look, no matter how heavy or thin.”
That unity is commonplace at St. Mary, according to several church members. Just ask Tommie Adams Blake, a member of St. Mary for 45 years. “Things have really changed,” she said.
In the beginning, the church was predominantly African-American. Within the past 20 years, the racial makeup has changed to include several races and ethnicities, many of which colored the sanctuary on a recent Sunday.
People saw the church’s dedication to “spreading the Word,” Blake said. “We became more culturalized and open.”
Being a Catholic church with a gospel choir didn’t hurt either, she said.
Since its formation, the church has added to its membership and ministries, including social outreach groups that do charity work and feed the hungry.
In 2008, members finished construction on the sanctuary to give congregants sitting room.
But, when Bettye Finley first joined in 1958, the parking lot was a basketball court, Friday night dances were a big draw and Saturday morning yard sales that were “gigantic,” according to Costella Gaither, were staples.
“The most striking thing is,” Gaither said, “the racial makeup ... we have a giving, loving spirit. When people come here, they don’t want to leave.”
“We bring you in and keep you,” Finley said.
It worked that way for Rita Smith. After visiting other churches in the area, Smith and her family settled at St. Mary 20 years ago. She hasn’t left yet. “It’s a unique church,” she said. “We’re a different type of Catholic church. ... I think that’s the draw. It’s not the same old, same old.”
About the members, she said, “it’s like a family ... nobody sees color,” a rare occurrence in today’s churches, she said. “You come here a stranger, but you don’t go out as a stranger.”