Black Catholics in Antebellum Charleston

By Krebsbach, Suzanne | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Black Catholics in Antebellum Charleston


Krebsbach, Suzanne, South Carolina Historical Magazine


BEGINNING WITH THE LORDS PROPRIETORS' FUNDAMENTAL

Constitutions of 1669, colonial South Carolina enjoyed the most tolerant religious policy in North America. Jews, Huguenots, Quakers, and other denominations were free to practice their faith. Catholics, however, were not welcome to do so, and African religious forms were suppressed.1 Following the American Revolution, South Carolina's 1790 constitution guaranteed the right to religious freedom for all, including slaves and Catholics.2 How the slaves, free blacks, and whites of Charleston openly practiced their Catholic faith in the decades that followed is the subject of this article.

Since the early years of the American nation, Roman Catholics have been a religious minority in the South. Historians of southern religion have generally concentrated their studies on Protestant denominations. Yet Catholics have comprised a significant numerical and cultural presence in states such as Maryland and Louisiana, and their presence in South Carolina has always been part of the state's religious landscape.3 Some historians have examined southern Catholic communities, black and white, but by and large, they have not investigated South Carolina.4 An examination of Catholics in antebellum Charleston throws light both on white Catholics and the city's distinctive community of black Catholics. It provides fresh insights into the religious context of black-white relations in the city and reveals that antebellum slaves and their masters occasionally made choices respecting religious practices that contradicted prevailing social norms of racial exclusiveness and social status.5

The basic unit of the Catholic church is the parish. There were three Catholic parishes in antebellum Charleston: St. Mary's on Hasell Street, established in 1791 and located in Ward 3; the Cathedral of St. John and St. Finbar (later known as the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist) on Broad Street, established in 1822 in Ward 1; and on the Charleston Neck in Ward 6, St. Patrick's, which was established in 1837.6 St. Mary's Catholic Church served the French Catholics of the city.7 Sermons there were in French until the 1830s, when Irish priest John England (1786-1842), appointed in 1820 by Pope Pius VII as the first bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, requested that the liturgy be conducted in English. When Bishop England established the cathedral in 1822, many of the old French families began to worship at the new church. Outside of Charleston, St. James the Greater in Colleton District was active by 1834, and St. Peter's Parish in Columbia was founded in 1835. Priests from Charleston occasionally visited St. Andrew's Parish in Barnwell District.

In 1834 the entire Catholic clergy of the Diocese of Charleston-which encompassed all of South Carolina as well as North Carolina and Georgiaconsisted of Bishop England in Charleston and eleven priests to serve the large territory. An order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, resided in Charleston.8 North Carolina had small Catholic communities in Washington, Fayetteville, and Newbern, with a mission in Wilmington. In Georgia there were small parishes in Savannah and Locust Grove.9 The church in the Diocese of Charleston was essentially a missionary church. Each of the three or four Charleston parish priests was responsible for his urban parish and numerous distant rural stations and missions, which he visited regularly. Even Bishop England spent a considerable amount of time on horseback. If urban Catholics were able to attend Mass and receive the sacraments regularly, those few Catholics in rural South Carolina were fortunate to see a priest once or twice a year. Natalie Delage Sumter, a French-born Catholic and daughter-in-law of Thomas Sumter, the famous "Gamecock" of the Revolution, lived at Home House Plantation in Sumter District. She looked forward to the priest's infrequent visits and occasionally traveled to Charleston for feast days. …

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