FLORENCE—Deacon James H. Johnson might never have become a Catholic if it hadn’t been for a visitor from New York.
He was six years old in 1942 when a neighbor’s niece visited St. Anne Church across the street from the Johnson family home.
The woman introduced the young boy to the Catholic faith and later asked his family if he could go to New York with her to attend Catholic schools. They declined the invitation and she returned to New York.
James Johnson, however, started attending St. Anne regularly on his own.
“My family wasn’t Catholic. They were Seventh Day Adventist, but they were supportive of me coming to the church,” he said in a recent interview with The Miscellany. “About seven years later, I entered the Catholic Church. I was baptized and confirmed at St. Anne’s.”
The seed of faith planted by a chance visit took root and grew in Johnson’s life, and he was ordained as a permanent deacon by Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler in 1985.
Deacon Johnson recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of his ordination with a special event held in his honor at St. Anne, where he is still a member, on Aug. 15.
Born and raised in Florence, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1955 at age 18, and began a military career that included service at bases around the United States and in Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. He retired as a staff sergeant.
Shortly after his retirement in 1975, the deacon began a second career at the Florence Airport, where he has worked for 34 years and is now chief of operations.
He has been married for 54 years to his wife Edna, who was his high school sweetheart. They have two daughters and a son, two grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Deacon Johnson said he was inspired to become a deacon in the late ’70s when he attended a Knights of Columbus event at St. Anne. He met Deacon Al Freeman who assisted the bishop during the Mass. He said he was intrigued by the ministry, and started studying for the diaconate soon after.
He enjoys all the facets of life in the ministry, and has assisted the faithful at important times throughout their lives, he said.
“I think of the infant baptisms I’ve performed, the renewal of wedding vows I’ve officiated,” he said. “The sad part is officiating at wakes and funerals, because many times it’s been for people I’ve known. Over the years, I’ve also met some of the children I’ve baptized after they become adults.”
He said his favorite part of the diaconate is the chance to minister to people in their homes, in hospitals and nursing homes.
“I especially enjoy visiting the sick and shut-ins,” he said. “I give them the Eucharist and talk to them. Some people I visit are Catholic, some are not. I talk with them, tell them jokes. I tell them about what I do as a deacon. People remember me for that, and it means a lot to me.”
He said one of the biggest honors of his life was being selected to travel to Detroit, Mich., in 1987 for a meeting of deacons from across the country, and Pope John Paul II attended.
Prayer is a constant and important part of the deacon’s life. He prays the Liturgy of the Hours daily, keeps a prayer book at his office for his free time, and visits a local cemetery to pray for those who have died. He also has a special devotion to St. Martin de Porres.
Deacon Johnson likes to reflect on the changes he’s seen since that first childhood visit to St. Anne. In those days, like everything else, Catholic parishes in many small southern towns were segregated, and St. Anne was the parish that most African-Americans in the area attended.
Now, he said, the church where he has spent most of his life has a diverse membership of more than 250 families that includes African-American, white, Hispanic and Filipino Catholics.
“We always used to say the Catholic Church was one church, and I’m glad I could see that happen,” he said.