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The crowd overflowed into the street at the 1907 dedication of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston. Diocese of Charleston Archive/provided

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston announced last month an array of programming and special services to mark its bicentennial. The celebrations began with vespers on July 11 and will continue well into the summer of 2020, culminating with a closing event on July 20 in Columbia.

The diocese’s anniversary coincides with the city of Charleston’s 350th-year festivities and helps to emphasize the long history of the Lowcountry.

“Throughout the year we are going to have different events in different deaneries throughout the state,” diocese archivist Brian Fahey said.

The diocese oversees all Catholic activity in South Carolina and includes seven deaneries, or districts, each of which will offer programming, Fahey said.

The diocese also is organizing a conference about Catholicism among African Americans, slated for October at the Pastoral Center in West Ashley. Bicentennial celebration coordinators are working with the College of Charleston’s Carolina Lowcountry & Atlantic World program to include a section on Catholic contributions to Lowcountry life in CLAW’s spring conference.

These events are open to all.

The history of Catholicism in South Carolina is wide-ranging. The diocese’s first bishop was John England, an who advocated for Irish emancipation from the British before relocating to Charleston. He started a newspaper back home and promoted the use of Ireland’s vernacular language.

“He brought these values to the U.S.,” Fahey said.

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John England was the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston. Diocese of Charleston Archive/Provided

It was the Archdiocese of Baltimore that set up the Diocese of Charleston on July 11, 1820, under the authority of Pope Pius VII. At the time, its jurisdiction extended to Georgia and North Carolina. It’s the seventh oldest Roman Catholic diocese in the U.S.

Over the course of two centuries, the diocese has established many schools throughout the state: three diocesan high schools, four private high schools and more than 25 parochial schools. And it has operated Catholic Charities and published the Miscellany newspaper, among other initiatives.

Its early history was focused on spreading the word of Christ, according to Suzanne Krebsbach, author of the forthcoming book “Slavery, Race and Catholic Evangelization in Charleston” and member of the diocese’s bicentennial organizing committee.

For Catholics in the Lowcountry, evangelization required a sometimes delicate balancing act, Krebsbach said.

“To do that, they had to accommodate their protestant neighbors,” she said. “They got money from Europeans to spread the Gospel among blacks and Native Americans.” And they were careful not to step hard on any toes.

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Catholic Crossroads community members near Walterboro continued to practice their faith despite the absence of priests and sacraments during the Civil War. In this 1926 picture, Bishop William T. Russell commemorates the founding of the St. James the Greater Mission. Diocese of Charleston Archive/provided

Sometimes this effort mixed with partisan politics and triggered confrontation, even violence, Krebsbach said. At one point in the early 19th century, Irish immigrants with Republican sympathies came to blows with counterrevolutionary French immigrants in the streets of Charleston, an episode that prompted the establishment of the diocese in the church’s effort to restore order, according to Krebsbach.

Additional events planned as part of the bicentennial celebration include:

  • A Mass for the Feast of the Assumption on Aug. 15 at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
  • An Oct. 12 commemoration of Spanish evangelization in the Beaufort Deanery, in cooperation with Parris Island Marine Corps Base and the Santa Helena Foundation
  • A celebration of the African American Catholic community in Walterboro, date to be determined.
  • A pilgrimage to Ireland in May 2020.

“The Church has had a presence here since the 1500s,” Krebsbach said. “The bicentennial celebrates only the most recent 200 years. I think these events (by no means the only events in the offing) highlight the rich heritage of the Catholic Church in Carolina.”

For more information, go to https://charlestondiocese.org/bicentennial/.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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