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Uncovering Catholic Hill


By Christie Slocum



What does is mean to be from The Hill?  This is the question that Dr. Alison McLetchie, Ph.D., is here trying to find the answer to.  Dr. McLetchie works at Claflin University and has a Masters in Anthropology and a Ph.D. in Sociology.  She has brought one student from Claflin and two from the College of Charleston.  The team hopes to create an ethnography of Catholic Hill.  An ethnography is a report that is produced by the study and systematic recording of human cultures.                                    DSC_0345

The story of Catholic Hill serves as a metaphor for black Catholics in South Carolina.  While Catholic Hill is unique in many respects, it is emblematic of the struggle for the faith in the way that the people of Catholic Hill maintained their identity despite decades of hardship and neglect.  St. James the Greater Catholic Church is located just south of Walterboro near Ritter.  The church dates back to 1826, making it one of the oldest churches in South Carolina.  Irish plantation owners started the church and worship there with their slaves.

In 1833, Bishop John England, the first Bishop of Charleston, dedicated the church.  Twenty-three years later in 1856, a fire started in a nearby field and spread to the church, destroying the building.  Next, the Civil War came through stalling any chances of rebuilding.  After the war the Irish settlers left their riddled plantations behind.  Slaves were now free and they stayed in the area and continued to worship.  They did not even have a priest.  Layman led prayers and helped keep the communities’ faith alive for nearly forty years.  During this time, the people built a schoolhouse next to the church.  In 1897, a traveling priest heard about the parishioners.  He came and helped re-establish the congregation and served the parish until 1909.  A new church was built; however, it would not be there for long.  In the 1930’s, a tornado spawned by a hurricane destroyed the building, but left the schoolhouse intact.  The third church was built and still stands today.  The schoolhouse was used until the 1970’s and has recently been renovated.  Heart pine boards were harvested from the dilapidated building with a plan to build a new altar, an ambo, and a baptismal font.  These items would serve as a reminder of the congregation’s endurance.  Once again, the congregation suffered a loss as the trailer holding the wood was stolen.  Prayers were answered as some community members came forward with information leading to the recovery of the beloved wood.  It is the perseverance of this congregation which drives Dr. McLetchie to want to know more about the history of the people who inhabit Catholic Hill.

The painting over the main altar is from 1897.  The work of art depicts St. Peter Claver ministering to the slaves.  How the parish came into possession of this work of art is unknown.  Photo by Christie Slocum

The painting over the main altar is from 1897. The work of art depicts St. Peter Claver ministering to the slaves. How the parish came into possession of this work of art is unknown. Photo by Christie Slocum

Through the research the team is doing, they hope to create a map of the cemetery using architectural design software and then overlaying that onto modern satellite imagery.  They will also create a catalogue of information from the cemetery.  They want to know more about who is buried there.  They have been scanning old photos for days.  They hope to uncover the identities of the people in the photos.  They want to learn more about how the freed slaves acquired the land at Catholic Hill, and find out where the original Irish settlers went.  The church will be hosting a friends and family days, June 11-13.  Photos that have already been scanned will be on display for the community to see.  The team is searching for individuals who are willing to be interviewed about the history of the church and area.  They would also like help identifying people in the photos they will have on display.  If you are willing to help in this ethnography of Catholic Hill, you can reach Dr. McLetchie at 803-535-5528, or by sending her an email to amcletchie@claflin.edu.

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