Organized Catholic life began in 1788 with the arrival of the first stationed priest in Charleston and with the pledge of several Catholic laymen to build a church. In 1789 five Catholics acquired a lot and a run-down building for the church, marking the first public Catholic space in the state.

Catholic interest in Carolina began with Spanish efforts to establish a foothold in the late sixteenth century, but the Spanish left no discernible Catholic presence by the time the English established their colony in the late seventeenth century. Despite the colony’s efforts to recruit widely for settlers, the South Carolina Assembly banned Catholic and Irish immigrants in 1716 for fear they would conspire with the Spanish in Florida to attack the colony. A few Catholics came anyway, mostly as indentured servants and in 1756 as Acadian refugees from Nova Scotia. Supposed links between the few Catholics in the colony and the Stono slave rebellion in 1739 and with Loyalism during the Revolutionary War, and more important, the lack of any established Catholic church in the colony, led Catholics to abandon their faith or at least to shy away from any public demonstration of their Catholicism. Still, individual Catholics found fortune in the colony and served the patriot cause.

Organized Catholic life began in 1788 with the arrival of the first stationed priest in Charleston and with the pledge of several Catholic laymen to build a church. In 1789 five Catholics acquired a lot and a run-down building for the church, marking the first public Catholic space in the state. The following year the Catholic population numbered roughly two hundred persons, “mostly poor” and concentrated in or near the city. In 1820 the Catholic Church established the diocese of Charleston, which then encompassed Georgia and both South and North Carolina (Georgia became the separate diocese of Savannah in 1850 and North Carolina the diocese of Raleigh in 1924). Most Catholics, however, lived in or near Charleston, which emerged as the center of Catholic life in the region with its churches, schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Struggles between laity and bishops over control of the appointment and character of priests, church finances, and social issues wracked the church during the early nineteenth century, and the lack of priests to serve the backcountry limited the church’s ability to meet the needs of a scattered Catholic population throughout the century.

No problem so vexed Catholicism in South Carolina as did the shortage of priests. The Catholic Church at first relied on foreign-born priests to staff parishes but during the twentieth century turned to American-born priests and religious orders to meet basic needs. Still, the one-priest parish remained the norm for the church in South Carolina. From 1850 to 1960, of all the southern states, South Carolina had the lowest or second-lowest density of Catholics in its total population. Upcountry parishes often shared priests, relying on missions and religious sisters to provide spiritual, educational, and social service needs, thus giving the upcountry church a missionary character it retained throughout the twentieth century. In 1950 only 96 priests and 230 religious sisters served the 17,508 Catholics in the state, spread across forty-two parishes and twenty-six missions. In 2000, 2 bishops, 87 diocesan priests, 34 religious priests, and 29 sisters served a Catholic population numbering 130,255 in eighty-five parishes and thirty missions. Most Catholics were concentrated in Charleston and Columbia, the only places with Catholic infrastructures of high schools, hospitals, and other associations necessary for a full Catholic institutional life. Catholics comprised only three percent of the state’s total population in 2000.

A closer examination of the Catholic profile, however, reveals that the Catholic presence and character had changed significantly since the mid-1960s. Vietnamese refugees, Central and South American immigrants, and northern-born migrants made up an increasing percentage of a Catholic population that had grown more than sevenfold in fifty years. Since the late 1960s Vatican II, which emphasized greater lay involvement in religious and administrative functions within the parish, eased somewhat the continued shortage of priests and shifted authority, and worship styles, from ecclesiastical determination to a more local variety.

Historically, Roman Catholics have “fit in” with the dominant South Carolina social and political culture. The Catholic Church emphasized a bricks-and-mortar approach to building and sustaining Catholicism in the diocese, as elsewhere, and foreswore engagement in controversial political and social issues. Bishop John England (1820–1842) acquired national recognition for his pro- posal to adapt a more “American” and “democratic” model of lay participation in church affairs, without conceding any ecclesiastical authority. Bishop Patrick Lynch (1858–1882) gained favor among southerners for his staunch defense of slavery and his willingness to serve as a Confederate legate to Rome in hopes of gaining recognition for the Confederacy. Such accommodation to southern “principles” ensured Catholics’ acceptance. Spasms of nativism and anti-Catholicism occurred, as in the 1880s when Catholic bishops sought state aid for parochial schools, but South Carolina evinced little of the anti-Catholicism that marked southern populism, Ku Kluxism, and cold-war fears of “foreign” subversion elsewhere, especially in Georgia. In South Carolina the Catholic Church moved cautiously regarding racial segregation, establishing the first separate “black parish,” St. Peter’s in Charleston, in 1867 and practicing de facto segregation in schools and social services into the mid– twentieth century, despite a special ministry to blacks. The diocese quietly desegregated its schools in 1963 to coincide with the desegregation of public schools. Catholic opposition to divorce and abortion also won friends among conservative Protestants in the “culture wars” of the 1980s and after. An upsurge in Catholics coming to the diocese in the 1990s kept the church focused on issues of church building and staffing and, except for ecumenical gatherings, largely out of the public eye.

Madden, Richard C. Catholics in South Carolina: A Record. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.

McNally, Michael J. “A Peculiar Institution: A History of Catholic Parish Life in the Southeast (1850–1980).” In The American Catholic Parish: A History from 1850 to the Present. Vol. 1, The Northeast, Southeast and South Central States, edited by Jay P. Dolan. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1987.

Miller, Randall M. “Roman Catholicism in South Carolina.” In Religion in South Carolina, edited by Charles H. Lippy. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Miller, Randall M., and Jon L. Wakelyn, eds. Catholics in the Old South: Essays on Church and Culture. Rev. ed. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1999.

Smith, Mark M. “Remembering Mary, Shaping Revolt: Reconsidering the Stono Rebellion.” Journal of Southern History 67 (August 2001): 513–34.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Catholics
  • Author
  • Keywords Catholic, priest shortage, missionaries, South Carolina,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 25, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2022
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