By PAUL A. BARRA
ROCK HILL — With his big, farmer’s hands and his flat belly, Brother J. David Boone looks like a fit workingman in his 50s. In fact, the Oratorian religious is 68 and will celebrate 50 years as a brother this December. But he does qualify as a workingman.
“Brother David loves to work,” said Father Joseph Wahl, provost of The Oratory who first met the golden jubilarian in seminary in 1949. “He oversees the total operation of The Oratory and is our treasurer. He’s also very active with the city of Rock Hill and is co-pastoral facilitator of St. Mary’s (Parish).”
Although he says he enjoys working behind the scenes and finds his grueling schedule “rewarding,” the brother is reaping tributes after decades of labor. Not only was Brother David honored by the Diocese of Charleston on Feb. 1 in his golden jubilee year, he was named by the state in January as the volunteer of the year for the S.C. Parks, Recreation and Tourism Commission.
He has been assigned to St. Mary Church, then an all-black parish, since 1959 and has been a board member of the poverty program of Carolina Community Actions for 20 years. The religious brother has also been a commissioner with the Rock Hill Parks and Recreation Commission since 1968. He is currently chairman of the commission and has been for 23 years. He got involved with Parks and Recreation because of his work with the church.
“Because our backyard was adjacent with the black high school in Rock Hill, we were closely connected to the athletics there. St. Mary’s has been involved with youth since Day One,” he said.
These were the pre-integration years in South Carolina and his association with black youngsters drove him into a period of danger and drama that the easy-going and peaceful man has never forgotten. Once, at a drive-in restaurant, he and a van full of black student athletes were waiting for their order when a sheriff’s deputy approached and told Brother David: “You’d better move on. I don’t know how much longer I can keep them quiet.” He was referring to a group of citizens who resented and felt threatened by the rising prerogatives of the African-American community. These were the same kinds of people who turned out the lights of a business establishment in Clover when the brother walked in and who burned a cross on the lawn of St. Ann’s School. The Rock Hill parochial school had integrated 16 years before the public schools in the state by accepting students from St. Mary’s from 1953 onward.
“The parents at St. Ann’s were willing to suffer for their beliefs,” Brother David said.
So, apparently, was he. When the American Friends came to Rock Hill in 1960 to coordinate voting workshops — blacks had to know the Constitution and own property to register to vote in those days — and the kinds of protest sit-ins that were so successful in Greensboro, N.C., the year before, St. Mary’s hosted many meetings in its parish center.
“St. Mary’s has always opened its doors to the community,” Brother David said. “We helped a Presbyterian minister who lived right beside the church to sponsor the Quakers. In 1961, students at nearby Friendship Junior College organized the first sit-ins in South Carolina. We supported them.”
The students went to jail and the local Catholic community suffered trials in their efforts to visit and support them. The diocese, then led by Bishop Paul Hallinan, supported the parishioners in their quest for justice. By the time Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler took over in 1965, civil rights had become a serious moral issue for the church of Charleston. The self-proclaimed German Shepherd became nationally recognized for his stance against racial inequality in the ’60s and ’70s.
The decades since have been relatively quiet for Brother David Boone. Still, his full days and varied jobs are never boring, and he finds life to be about as good as it can get.
“It’s a wonderful life, a good life spiritually. My therapy is working on the grounds here at The Oratory. All that is asked of Oratorians is that we pray together in the morning, attend noon Mass and eat the main meal together at 12:45. Otherwise, we have the liberty of arranging our own schedules.” he said.
The Oratory has been asked by the Diocese of Charleston to minister to the spiritual and administrative needs of the diocesan parishes in the Rock Hill area, and the thriving monastery has been happy to comply. Brother David has been equally happy to comply with his call as a male religious.
“Our charism is to do all the work behind the scenes to free the priests to care for the spiritual needs of the people. After two years at St. Mary’s College (a seminary near his home in New Haven, Ky., and near the Trappist abbey of Gethsemane), I applied to The Oratory as a brother because I felt comfortable in the work they do. I came here in 1951 and will be here for life. We don’t retire; we just slow down as we get on,” he said.
Brother David has no plans to slow down yet. His 50th anniversary is just another mile marker on his long journey with the Lord. Along the way, he finds work to fill his waking hours.