ROCK HILL — Donna Bushue Willis said priests from The Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Rock Hill have touched the lives of four generations of her family.
“They ministered to my mom and dad, and baptized me, my daughter and my grandchildren,” she said in an interview with The Miscellany. “We grew up with the Oratorian priests.”
Willis and her husband joined about 100 people from area parishes for a May 31 prayer service and celebration of The Oratory’s diamond jubilee, or 75th anniversary.
The service, which coincided with the feast of Pentecost, ended a weeklong celebration of the Catholic prayer, retreat and study center founded in 1934.
The official celebration started on May 26, when 35 priests, brothers and women religious from three different dioceses — Charleston, Charlotte, and Richmond — attended Mass at The Oratory church, celebrated by Most Rev. David B. Thompson, retired Bishop of South Carolina.
During the week, many people also celebrated the 80th birthday of Father Joseph Wahl, who came to The Oratory in 1946 and serves as its leader.
During the prayer service, Father Wahl read a letter from Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone, who was unable to attend the celebration.
“This anniversary marks a proud moment for the Catholic Church in South Carolina,” the bishop wrote. “This celebration would not be possible without the ardent faith and dedicated prayer of those who founded The Oratory.”
The service included a short homily from Father Wahl, who described the ups and downs The Oratory has faced over the years, plus the role it has played in developing Catholicism in York County.
“How fitting it is we close the celebration with the parishioners of York County. In many ways you are our people, the people entrusted to The Oratory” he said. “In 1934, when we started, it was said you could put all the Catholics in Rock Hill in a bus. Rock Hill today is a reflection of the special relationship between you and us.”
He said the Oratorians’ strong relationship with lay people grew directly from the vision of their founder, St. Philip Neri, who started The Oratory in 16th century Rome. The saint lived as a hermit, focused on ministering to the poor, and regularly held meetings with laymen who followed his guidance. Their meeting place came to be called The Oratory, which means “place of prayer.”
“Four hundred years before the Second Vatican Council, St. Philip Neri had the vision that the laity be empowered to use their gifts,” Father Wahl said. “Over the years the Oratorians have shared the faith with you, we’ve administered the sacraments to you, and we have shared the co-responsibility of spreading the good news of the Gospel. Often, we learn from you.
“We are blessed as Oratorians that God has given us the ability to stay with you all these years. Underneath everything The Oratory does, the driving force is always prayer, and we are thankful for being able to pray with you.
“Together with you we will, with God’s grace, leave a solid foundation to those who will follow us,” he said.
After the prayer service, a reception was held in Pope John XXIII Hall at The Oratory. Pictures and memorabilia were on display around the room, and a special video depicting images of Rock Hill and The Oratory from the 1940s was available for viewing in another room.
Members of the area’s four Catholic parishes and one mission spoke about the contributions The Oratory has made to Catholic life over the years. The four churches are St. Anne and St. Mary in Rock Hill, Divine Saviour in York, and St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill. Sacred Heart Mission is located in Lake Wylie.
The men and women described the Oratorians’ commitment to helping lay people develop prayer lives and grow in faith. They also spoke about their ongoing work in social justice and efforts to enhance the diversity of York County overall.
One of the accomplishments mentioned most often was the decision in 1954 to admit four black students to St. Anne School, which the Oratorians helped start in 1951. It was the first school in South Carolina, public or private, to integrate.
Father Wahl and several other people talked about how Oratorians helped more than 100 Vietnamese refugee families settle in the Rock Hill area in 1975.
“Because of that, look what a vibrant Vietnamese community we have today,” he said. “They have given so much over the years and are still giving back.”
Members of the Vietnamese community prepared food for both celebrations, and members of the Hispanic community performed several songs in Spanish during the reception.
Lucia B. Fudge of Rock Hill was moved to tears when she talked about the Oratorians she has known since moving to the area with her husband in 1947. An Italian immigrant, Fudge would drive into Rock Hill from her family’s farm to attend Mass at The Oratory, and she still worships there regularly.
“I love them all. I have met so many of the priests and brothers from here over the years,” she said. “They baptized my children, and The Oratory itself has come to mean everything to me. They are like my family. This is like home.”