ROCK HILL — Members of Our Lady of Grace Mission say a special prayer together each week at the 4 p.m. Saturday Mass.
“Lord God … we are grateful for our community … we ask you, Lord, to continue your work in our faith community and in our homes,” they pray. “Open our minds and hearts to respond generously to the exciting challenge before us.”
They are talking about the challenge of meeting the needs of one of the fastest growing Catholic communities in the Diocese of Charleston.
Our Lady of Grace is located in the Indian Land community of Lancaster County. It has been formally established as a mission of St. Philip Neri Church in nearby Fort Mill.
The mission started in early 2008 as a Catholic community that held Mass in borrowed space at a Methodist church. Crowds grew so quickly that services first moved to a local high school and now are held in the expansive gymnasium at Indian Land Parks and Recreation Center off U.S. Highway 521.
Weekly Masses regularly draw 250 to 300 people, and 400 households are already listed as members.
Father John P. Giuliani, pastor at St. Philip Neri, and Father Edward P. McDevitt, parochial vicar, alternate as celebrants for the weekly Mass. A dedicated group of volunteers meets before and after Mass each week to set up the altar, chairs, music stands and other items needed to turn the gymnasium into a sacred space. Missalettes and other supplies are kept in a storage container behind the recreation center.
Catholics in the area were driving 20 miles to St. Matthew Church outside Charlotte or 15 miles to St. Philip Neri in Fort Mill. The new mission brings families from as far away as Lancaster.
“It’s a great blessing that there are so many Catholics moving into the area,” said Father Giuliani. “They’re coming from the north and from the Midwest. There’s been a major demographic shift, and people are headed to this area because of jobs and other opportunities.”
Indian Land is at the heart of one of the biggest growth areas in South Carolina. Retirees, many of them Catholic, are flocking to Sun City, Carolina Lakes, and other communities along U.S. 521. The area is also drawing young families into subdivisions as the Charlotte-Rock Hill area rapidly expands outward.
Meetings were held at Sun City in 2007 to see if people were interested in forming a Catholic community. Organizers expected a few dozen people, but instead, more than 100 showed up. Since then, Our Lady of Grace has found many volunteers willing to serve as lectors, extraordinary ministers of Communion and in other ways.
The mission already has land for a building of its own. In 2008, an anonymous donor gave 12 acres of land to Our Lady of Grace, with the condition that only a Catholic place of worship could be built there. The site is 3.8 miles from Sun City off Highway 75.
Work has recently been done on the land, including grading. Frank Patak, a parish council member, said there are plans to move a donated modular home to the site within the next month. It will be used for temporary offices and a meeting space.
Father Giuliani said the home would be used for faith formation classes, mission meetings and hopefully daily Masses. Weekend Masses would continue at the recreation center. The challenge now is to raise money through the mission’s building fund for a permanent worship space.
Patak, along with his wife Anne, is one of the founding members of the mission. The couple, who are originally from New York, moved to the Carolinas from Largo, Fla., to be close to their two sons, who live near Charlotte.
“I’m very optimistic about the future, because people here are enthusiastic and many ministries have already been established,” Patak said. He is part of the newly formed Our Lady of Grace Knights of Columbus Council 14765, which has 32 members.
In recent months, the mission has also started a women’s club, a funeral committee, and a group that organizes home and hospital visitations. Registration was also held for faith formation for young people. Father Giuliani said the women’s club has already started social outreach by gathering school supplies and other items for needy children in the area.
Our Lady of Grace also sponsored a youth softball team that won a Rock Hill regional championship this past spring.
Christy Brown, another parishioner, is leading a fledgling youth group, with meetings that attract between eight and 10 regular members. More young people have expressed interest in joining once the school year resumes, Brown said.
“I just think it’s exciting for a new mission to already have 250 to 300 families, and going forward with plans is very exciting,” she said. “We’re seeing kids who really do want to meet each other and have a connection. The kids and their families like that it’s a good, safe Christian environment.”
Barbara Kennedy was one of the people who regularly drove to either Fort Mill or Charlotte for Mass before joining Our Lady of Grace. She moved to Sun City from Bethel, Conn., three years ago and now serves as a greeter and an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at the mission.
“There’s such a need for a church here, and there’s been such an outpouring of people who are so dedicated to bringing this to fruition,” Kennedy said. “It’s wonderful and amazing. This really proves that wherever you gather in Jesus’ name, he is there.”