CHARLESTON—The final Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Church was a sad event for her parishioners.
Father Henry N. Kulah, pastor, offered comfort to several people before and after the 3 p.m. liturgy held at the America Street church on March 16. He said one lady in her 70s called him after the Mass and said it was like attending a funeral.
“They would like to have [Our Lady of Mercy] still, but having it meant bearing a burden that was way too much,” Father Kulah said.
Our Lady of Mercy, a traditionally African-American parish, was closed recently because it simply didn’t have enough members to keep it going, said Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone.
Parishioners said they usually had about 20 people at the weekly Mass, but noted that everyone was 45 or older, with no young folks in attendance.
“We’re sorry to see the church close, but the signs were there,” said Veronica McDaniel. “It’s an aging parish.”
McDaniel, along with her husband Wade, attended Our Lady of Mercy for over 30 years. She said they watched the neighborhood change and people move away. Children grew up and found different churches until only a core group remained.
In recent years, the McDaniels and others have become involved with ministries and social events at St. Patrick Church as well, where Father Kulah also serves as pastor. With the official closing of Our Lady of Mercy, many members signed on with the sister church, St. Patrick.
Mrs. McDaniel said there is continuity with the pastor and the community, but she understands how difficult it is for people who have attended Our Lady of Mercy for generations. The church on America Street was founded in 1928 with a starting Sunday school class bursting with 71 children.
Annabell Seabrook, who has been a member for 42 years, recalls a thriving parish full of community spirit and enthusiasm. Like most other members, when Seabrook started attending Our
Lady of Mercy she lived in the neighborhood and could walk to church, greeting family and friends along the way.
She remembers when the downstairs level housed a clinic for children, and how Sister Marguerite would bring a trailer full of clothing to donate to people in the neighborhood. They had a band with guitars and bongo drums for the kids, and would hold fashion shows to raise money.
“It was always a close-knit group with 50 to 60 families,” she said.
But the numbers dwindled as people moved and children went elsewhere. In the last two years, Father Kulah said, the church has been a quiet place with no new members, no marriages and no baptisms.
As Seabrook sadly notes, “When you have no children, you have no church.”
The closing Mass was celebrated by Bishop Guglielmone and Father Kulah, along with Fathers Dennis Willey and Jeffrey Kendall, former pastors, and attended by the Knights of Peter Claver and a strong crowd from the community.
Bishop Guglielmone said the Mass was a chance to give thanks for the many years of service, and while it was melancholy, the church will continue to serve the people’s needs. Already, members of Our Lady of Mercy have been welcomed by St. Patrick, where most have friends and family.
Father Kulah said he hopes familiarity will make it easier for them to feel at home.
The church will continue as part of Neighborhood House, which has occupied the first floor/basement since 1952, providing outreach ministry through its soup kitchen, clothing center and education programs.
“Neighborhood House is serving the needs of the people and right now that is not a worship need,” the bishop said, “they are reaching out to the poor in the community.”