During this Year for Consecrated Life, we are asked to gratefully remember the past, especially the history of the Congregation since Vatican II. In this reflection, we consider the opening of the mission of the St. Joseph Province (American Northeast Province) in Orangeburg, SC in 1984. In later reflections the establishment of other missions will be considered.
The decision to open a new mission of the province finds its roots in the provincial chapter of the ANEP in 1982, and the desire of the chapter to establish a new mission based on the newly drafted Fundamental Principles that would serve the poor and the marginalized. Unlike other ministries that individual Brothers or groups of Brothers undertook with the blessing of the provincial, this new venture was to emphasize a corporate Congregational commitment and the witness of the community, which would consist in both the specific ministries of the individual Brothers and the hospitable presence of a prayerful community to the parish and neighborhood in which the community would be located.
The implementation of this decision was given to the province’s Social Justice Committee under the chairmanship of Brother John McDonald. An initial step in the process was writing a letter to each diocese/archdiocese in the country asking the Bishop about mission needs in his diocese to which the presence of a community of brothers could respond. As one can imagine, the letter generated a great deal of response with Bishops eager to have a community of Brothers, and offering us schools to administer or staff. The Social Justice committee culled through the responses seeking those which seemed most aligned with the goals of the chapter’s decision. Having reduced the number of possibilities to three, the Provincial Brother James Sullivan and Brother John McDonald visited each of them in order to discern the most appropriate site for the new community. In the end, the Social Justice committee and the provincial and council determined that Orangeburg, in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, would be the home of our new mission. Orangeburg was selected for a number of reasons: it provided a variety of ministries for the community to become engaged (parish grade school, parish religious education program, college campus ministry, interfaith activities); we would work in collaboration with another religious community, the Redemptorists; it offered a diverse population in a mission diocese with a very small percentage of Catholics.
The next step in the process was discerning which Brothers would become part of the pioneer community in Orangeburg. All members of the province were surveyed about their interest and asked to respond if they were open to be missioned by the province for this undertaking. With a little bit of arm twisting, Jim Sullivan convinced Brother James Connolly to accept the role as director of the community. Jim Sullivan and the province council wanted someone who had a full appreciation for the hopes of the mission and the ability to work with other Brothers in creating such a new endeavor. Other members of that pioneer community were Brothers Paul Cullen, Joseph Glebas, and Lawrence Harvey.
In February 1984, the Brothers made their first trip to Orangeburg to meet with the pastor and members of the parish community. We were welcomed with open arms. The Redemptorist Pastor, Fr. Don Lindsay, went out of his way to make sure we felt welcome. It was determined that the best residence for the Brothers would be the former convent of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who came to Orangeburg in 1943 to staff Christ the King school, an African-American school opened to serve the recently erected African-American parish. Although the convent was a bit of a hodgepodge of a building—it seemed as if every time a new Sister was missioned to the school, a new bedroom was added to the house—it was really ideal for the type of community we wanted to establish. There were adequate bedrooms for the Brothers and guests, as well as large common spaces and a chapel.
On that visit, we came to learn the story of the Catholic church in Orangeburg—a racially segregated city for much of its history. The Redemptorists first went to Orangeburg in 1939, to establish a mission to African-Americans. They erected a church and school which mysteriously burned down soon after they were built. Undeterred, they rebuilt the facilities. Throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and much of the 60’s, there were two Catholic parishes in Orangeburg—Christ the King for African-Americans and Holy Trinity for whites. The archives of the Diocese of Charleston note that, “In light of the struggle for civil rights in Orangeburg and the U.S., and in response to concerns about the dual system of separatism and segregation in the Catholic Church in Orangeburg, Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler decided to merge Christ the King and Holy Trinity parishes in August 1967. Christ the King School was moved into Holy Trinity Catechetical Center and was renamed Holy Trinity School.” Even when the Xaverians arrived in 1984, the Catholic parish was still one of the very few integrated churches in Orangeburg County.
Also, on that visit, the four pioneers discerned together how the Brothers would begin their ministry of presence and service to the people of Orangeburg. One of the unique things about Orangeburg was the variety of ministries with which the Brothers could get involved. In addition to the grammar school and parish, there were two African-American colleges in Orangeburg—South Carolina State University (the site of the Orangeburg Massacre in 1968) and Claflin College, a liberal arts college affiliated with the United Methodist Church. It was determined that Joe Glebas would have the primary responsibility of serving as principal of the grammar school and that Jim Connolly and Paul would share the duties of religious education at the parish, with Paul focusing on the sacramental preparation and youth education programs and Jim focusing on the adult faith formation programs. Paul and Jim would also share the duties of Catholic campus ministry to South Carolina State and Claflin. Larry, who was finishing up his undergraduate work at Boston College, would serve as a religion teacher in the grammar school and also assist Paul and Jim in the religious education program.
Following the February visit, the Brothers returned to New England to transition from their respective ministries or studies and to prepare for their coming together as a community in mission in Orangeburg. In addition to discussions that they had with Jim Sullivan and the province staff about the mission, they also participated in other preparatory meetings such as completing the Myers-Briggs inventory with Brother Sebastian Barresi. This commitment to working together as a community in their own on-going formation, as well as the formation of the community became a regular element of communal life in the early days of the Orangeburg foundation.
In July of 1984, after being “missioned” in the name of the province at a celebration attended by many of the members of the province at the Provincialate in Milton, MA, the Brothers rented a U-Haul truck and borrowed a car from the provincialate to make their move to Orangeburg. Fr. Lindsay and the parish council had done a remarkable job in preparing the brothers’ residence. Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler, who in his younger days had served as chaplain to the Brothers at the novitiate in Old Point Comfort, Virginia and had attended Catholic University with the Brothers, was most gracious in welcoming the Xaverians to his diocese.
Even before the start of the academic year, the Brothers worked together to establish a rhythm for their community life. As there was a strong emphasis on presence to the surrounding community, hospitality was a hallmark of the life of the Brothers’ community. Parishioners and neighbors were invited to join the Brothers for evening prayer. Two or three days a week, the Redemptorists would celebrate mass for the Brothers and any of the parishioners who cared to attend. The Brothers also formed a close collaboration with the Redemptorists who served the parish as well as a number of distant missions and parishes in Orangeburg County and the surrounding counties as well. In addition to the parish, the greater Orangeburg community was welcoming to the Brothers and the Brothers went out of their way to extend their presence to others in the Diocese, as well as to other faith communities. In fact, six months or so after the Brothers arrival in Orangeburg, Fr. Lindsay told the story of going to the bank to transact some business. As he finished, the teller said to him, “Thank you, Brother, it is always good to see you.” With tongue in cheek he complained to the community that he had been in Orangeburg for a number of years and wondered why after only a few months people were assuming all Catholic clergy were “Brothers.”
While in next week’s installment we’ll reflect more on the community life, as well as the presence and ministry of the Brothers, we’ll conclude this reflection of “grateful remembrance” by mentioning the other Brothers who shared community in Orangeburg: Jeremiah O’Leary replaced Larry Harvey, and Leonard Wojtanowski replaced Joe Glebas. Later, Ray Hoyt, Fred Kinsman, Rodney Sulzer, Alphonse Kopp, John Baptist Neylon, and John Hickey would, at various stages, be members of the community. Today, while Paul Cullen remains the only Xaverian presence in Orangeburg, continuing to serve the faith formation of adults, the memory of the Brothers and the witness of the Xaverian Brothers is fondly and gratefully recalled.