by PAUL A. BARRA
SUMTER — Catholics in the Midlands of South Carolina have a French aristocrat to thank for the development of their faith tradition. Natalie Delage Sumter, godchild of King Louis XVI, was instrumental in founding Catholicism in the Sumter area in the years before the Diocese of Charleston was established.
In 1802, after having fled Paris from the French Revolution as a child, Natalie Delage married Thomas Sumter Jr., son of the Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter — “the Gamecock.” In between diplomatic postings, the couple lived for many decades on a plantation in the Sumter area. When she first arrived at her home, she found that the only Catholic church in South Carolina was St. Mary’s in Charleston.
“Natalie was committed to the development of the church in South Carolina,” said Thomas Tisdale, her great, great, great grandson and author of a newly released book about her life and about the early church, A Lady of the High Hills (USC Press, 2001).
That commitment entailed supporting Bishop John England, once he was appointed prelate of Charleston in 1820; donating 160 acres of land for a church building; and educating her children and her slaves in the Catholic religion. She provided a chapel on the grounds of her family’s farm and created a lending library, both expressly for the use of the slaves she and her husband owned. She was an early champion of Mt. St. Mary’s College in Maryland and sent her children there for their higher education.
“She was important to Catholicism,” said Alexander Moore, a member of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and the editor for the University of South Carolina Press who was responsible for the book’s publication. “She was able to effect change and progress in the Catholic Church. I suspect that many of the black Catholics in the Midlands today are descendants of her slaves.”
Both Tisdale and Moore were especially impressed that a woman in private life, when women were banned from much of the public discourse and commerce of the day, was able to have such a lasting impact. Natalie Delage Sumter lived through important times, according to Tisdale, including the French Revolution, the Louisiana Purchase, the Napoleonic Wars and the formative days of the United States.
“She was a remarkable woman who lived in remarkable times. Her life placed her in the midst of very important events,” Tisdale said.
Tisdale, a Broad Street lawyer and an Episcopalian (“I’m Catholic, but not Roman.”), started out seven years ago to write a biography of this remarkable ancestor of his. Once historians vetted the book manuscript, however, he and Moore began to realize that it could be more than a biography: It would be a fine vehicle to “expose the early history of the church.” The Tisdale book has also evolved into a social history of the places and people who populated the milieu in which she lived, Moore said, including New York, France, Brazil, South Carolina, Aaron Burr, Napoleon, the Gamecock and Bishop England.
Natalie Delage Sumter was an unknown figure in popular history until A Lady of the High Hills, but two people knew enough about her to inspire Tisdale’s work. One was the late Our Lady of Mercy Sister M. Ignatia Gavaghan, who published a booklet about Madame Sumter in the 1980s under the auspices of the Sumter County Historical Society. Tisdale based his narrative outline on the work of Sister Ignatia. Another was Father Scott Buchanan, the late diocesan historian, who gave Tisdale his treatise on early church history in South Carolina.
“My father, who was an Anglican priest, was close to Sister Ignatia, and she was one of my inspirations,” the author said. “Father Buchanan was a great help to me, too. He gave me the paper he wrote when he was at the Pontifical Gregorian University.”
After seven years of exhaustive research, Tisdale could find nothing “disappointing” about the life of Natalie Delage Sumter; in fact, he concluded that she was able to rise above circumstances to become an early church leader in South Carolina in part because of her spirituality.
“It would be nice to say she loved the (plantation), but that is probably not true. There were no Europeans, few Catholics and she was separated from the society she knew in France and New York. She felt lonely. She showed her strength of character, though, and was able to make a place for herself. Her prayer life was intense,” Tisdale said.
Tisdale will talk about early church history and Natalie Delage Sumter at a reception hosted by Bishop Robert J. Baker on Jan. 18. He will also exhibit some of the original materials from her life and from that of Bishop England in his collection and in the diocesan archives.