Date of Award

2015

Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Department

History

Sub-Department

Public History

First Advisor

Robert Weyeneth

Abstract

St. James the Greater Catholic Mission constitutes a rare and possibly unique site on the American landscape. Comprising a church, a schoolhouse, and a cemetery, the mission parish serves the rural black community south of Walterboro, South Carolina. Black Catholics in rural America are a rarity unto themselves, but the St. James blacks are particularly extraordinary. Parishioners today trace their roots to ancestors who were slaves of Irish Catholic planters in the 1820s and 1830s. Originally biracial, the parish evolved into a predominantly black congregation by the middle of the nineteenth century. The early white heritage exists quietly on today in the parish cemetery: the sarcophagus of James McKain, born in Derry, Ireland and deceased in Colleton County, South Carolina in 1835, stands surrounded by nineteenth-century African-American graves. St. James School introduced Catholic parochial education to South Carolina’s rural blacks. The two-story schoolhouse that stands today served for many years as a lone “bright spot in the darkness” for black Catholic education

in the state. Constructed with donations from the Catholic nun and philanthropist Katharine Drexel, the school operated from 1901 to 1960, when integration brought about the consolidation and closing of black schools across the South. St. James Church lies east of the schoolhouse and completes this exceptional, compact little Catholic campus. A northern white couple, Mr. and Mrs. Edwin H. Denby, funded the building of the church in 1935. The shingled, Gothic-styled edifice is emblematic of the style of the distinguished architect who designed it, Catholic priest Michael McInerney. Together, the schoolhouse and church give material expression to the black St. James community, as well as to the whites who, acting out of a sense of Catholic fellowship, gave generously to the poor African-American parish of whom they knew little but that they shared the same faith. This white philanthropy supplemented the remarkable steadfastness and perseverance of the St. James blacks, helping the mission to survive and thrive for over a century.

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