EDGEFIELD — Parishioners old and new gathered in the beautiful church of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception on Nov. 2 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their parish.
St. Mary is located on Jeter Street, just a few blocks from downtown Edgefield, and serves about 64 households. The membership includes descendants of families who have been part of the Catholic community since the 19th century, including the Blands, Murphys and Rainsfords.
Land for the church was purchased in 1856, and the building’s elegant grey stone exterior was constructed by stonemasons who had immigrated to the Carolinas from Ireland. The church was dedicated in 1860 by Bishop Patrick Lynch, the third bishop of the Diocese of Charleston.
Before 1851, a Catholic priest from Augusta would visit the area to offer Mass for the faithful. From 1851 through 1865, St. Mary was a mission of St. Andrew Church in Barnwell. Father Timothy Bermingham was the first priest to serve the parish for several years.
Since 1939, St. Mary has been connected with St. William Church in the nearby town of Ward. Father Robert Ninedorf has served as pastor of both since the mid-1990s.
Bishop Robert J. Baker celebrated the anniversary Mass. He spoke to the gathering about the significance of the celebration taking place on the feast of All Souls’ Day, because of its focus on remembering and honoring the deceased.
“What a fitting time to give tribute to those who went before us to lay the foundations of this church,” he said.
At the beginning of his homily, the bishop also included a quick joke about one of Edgefield’s most famous residents.
“Strom Thurmond had not yet been born when the church was started,” he said.
The late senator from South Carolina is arguably Edgefield’s most famous son, although the town also prides itself on being the birthplace of nine other South Carolina governors.
Bishop Baker noted that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854 by Pope Pius XI, and consequently St. Mary was one of the earliest churches in the United States to be given the name.
He also spoke about the importance of purgatory as a teaching of the Catholic church, and how its idea can serve as a comfort to all who have lost someone dear to them.
To illustrate his point, Bishop Baker read from a letter written by Father Bermingham to the widow of Elbert Bland, a doctor in Edgefield who served and died in the Confederacy. The priest was a close friend of the Bland family. He described in his letter the “middle gate” of purgatory as a “work of God’s providence” to aid sinners who are not yet ready to be with God in heaven.
After his homily, Bishop Baker joined members of St. Mary in a ritual of remembrance and celebration.
Longtime church members Hugh Bland and John Wight led prayers for people in the past who helped in the building and establishment of the church and those who are guiding it in the present.
Deacon John Klein offered prayers for Bishop Baker, deceased parishioners, friends and family. Prayers were also offered for the future of the parish.
After the Mass, a reception was held in St. Mary’s parish life hall.