NORTH CHARLESTON—In 1966, members of the newly formed St. Thomas the Apostle parish went to the nearby Exchange Club Fairgrounds every Sunday.
They weren’t there to ride the Ferris wheel or see exhibits. This is where their first worship space was located.
Since 1968, parishioners have attended Mass in their distinctive brown brick church off Dorchester Road in North Charleston. The building has been renovated and the facilities expanded over the years.
As St. Thomas the Apostle prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary this fall, original members say the parish has maintained a sense of mission and community over the decades, one that formed in those early years when Mass was celebrated in unconventional spaces.
“This parish has been our lives,” said Joseph McIntyre, an original member who is handling many of the anniversary celebration plans.
McIntyre moved to Charleston in the late ’50s from upstate New York when he was in the U.S. Navy. He met his late wife Joan, a Charleston native, at a USO party, and the two originally attended St. John Church, also in North Charleston.
In October 1966, the diocese announced that a new parish was being formed in the area, encompassing a 12-mile stretch between the Ashley River and Interstate 26 and reaching almost to the town of Ladson.
McIntyre and his family were part of the original group to form St. Thomas the Apostle.
In the early days, members attended Mass in fairground buildings, and had to spend a couple of months with no heat until they could move to one that was heated. Their first pastor was Father Ronald P. Anderson, who came to North Charleston after many years at St. Peter Church in Beaufort.
The parish at that time used an altar and pews from the old St. Joseph Church in downtown Charleston. On weekdays, Father Anderson and other priests would celebrate Mass in the private homes of parishioners.
Beginning in 1967, plans were underway for a permanent building. McIntyre recalls serving as president of the original advisory and planning board and driving out to the current church site when it was little more than a dirt road surrounded by trees.
The distinctive church building, with its curved front and pointed steeple, was designed by Charleston area architect Demetrius C. Lilia. The inside included a large chunk of natural marble rock which later became the baptismal font. Bishop Ernest L. Unterkoefler dedicated the church in November 1968.
It went through several renovations over the years, including a new roof, stained glass windows and pews. Currently Father Arnulfo Jara Galvez is the administrator and St. Thomas the Apostle serves about 500 families.
McIntyre said St. Thomas has always been a friendly place with plenty of spiritual and social activities. It is currently home to a growing religious education program, active senior group and Knights of Columbus unit. He said it is also a generous parish, with many members who work in area soup kitchens and help people in other ways.
“This has always been an outgoing parish, a great group of people ready to do whatever it takes to spread the word of God,” he said.
McIntyre and other members point out the vibrant multicultural community that has developed in recent years. St. Thomas the Apostle has a large Hispanic community and hosts a Spanish Mass and Spanish-language religious education classes. There is also a growing Filipino community, plus families from Korea and several African nations.
The different cultures who worship there are represented with several small shrines to Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego and Santo Niño that dot the church property.
Ginger Streuber, another original member, served as the parish secretary for many years. She recalled how her son received his first holy Communion while parishioners were still worshipping at the fairgrounds, and remembers attending Mass in private homes when space wasn’t available.
“I’m proud of how far we’ve come and the way the parish has evolved over the years,” she said. “We’re a close knit group that has come a long way together.”
Madge Taylor Vietch, who also has attended St. Thomas since it started, said she has always been thankful for everything about her parish. She has fond memories of hosting Mass in her home before the permanent church was complete.
“We’ve had wonderful priests over the years and we’ve improved the church so much from the bare bones we started out with,” she said. “I never had any doubt we’d get to our 50th year. It’s wonderful to be celebrating.”
McIntyre and others at St. Thomas the Apostle are currently trying to contact other former parishioners in advance of the main anniversary Mass and celebration on Oct. 22. They hope as many people as possible will come out to share memories and thank God for the tight-knit community that grew from those first days praising God at the fairgrounds.
Top photo by Deirdre C. Mays/Miscellany: Father Arnulfo Jara Galvez, administrator, celebrates Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in North Charleston, which turns 50 this year.