In the 1990s, the Catholic Diocese of Charleston planned to sell property off Line Street on the Charleston Peninsula.
It appeared to be no more than a small field, its history (and visibility) obscured by the construction of the Crosstown Expressway in the late 1960s, a highway that bisected this former residential neighborhood, the center of African American city life. .
In fact, the field is a Catholic cemetery with over 1,000 human remains interred in its consecrated ground, and through an ongoing effort it will be transformed into a memorial park, filled with 20-foot granite crosses, landscaping landscaping, paths for relaxed strolls and benches to sit on, pray and contemplate the dead.
St. John’s Cemetery, almost lost in time and indifference, will once again remind residents and passers-by of a fascinating aspect of the black experience in Charleston.
make a memorial
Once the diocese’s intentions became known in the mid-1990s, members of two black churches expressed concern. They knew this was no ordinary terrain; they knew it contained hidden treasures that could be lost forever if the land was sold and the buildings erected.
People at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on St. Philip Street and Calvary Episcopal Church on Line Street just across from the old cemetery, wanted to know how the Catholic Diocese acquired the property in question, how it had been used and how it came to be abandoned.
So Calvary, in collaboration with the diocese, commissioned the Colombia-based Chicora Foundation to research the history of the site and generate a report.
“While there is an oral history regarding this property, it is scattered, of varying accuracy, and (unfortunately) not systematically collected,” wrote Michael Trinkley and Debi Hacker of Chicora. “Therefore, there were stories of the property obtained by a benevolent society from a Catholic layman for the burial of free and enslaved black Catholics, of being the site of several churches and of having monuments up to relatively recently, but there was little documentation against which to compare these accounts.
Nevertheless, the Chicora Foundation managed to gather enough information to convince Catholic officials to change their plans. The diocese would protect and maintain the property, and perhaps find a way to honor the souls who rest there.
In recent months, the diocese has committed $25,000 to the restoration project, and a volunteer group called Carolina Catholic Professionals has raised more than $70,000. The year-end goal is $100,000, with which the team will pay for the monument, landscaping, furnishings, and low-key project areas such as prayer nooks where the unnamed dead and children buried on the site can be commemorated.
Lead volunteer Frank Dirks said QR codes available on the grounds will allow visitors to log in to carolinacatholicprofessionals.com where they can read details about the history of the cemetery and black Catholics in Charleston.
“(The website) allows people scattered across the country with ancestors buried there to access information,” Dirks said.
Once the memorial park is completed, the diocese will be responsible for looking after the grounds. It could also expand the site’s future programming, officials said.
“As Catholics, we believe that consecrated ground is a liturgically blessed space dedicated to the honor and glory of God, as well as a place of memory and reverence for the remains of the deceased,” the leaders said. Diocesan officials in a statement. “He represents the continuation, even in death, of the spiritual unity which makes all Catholics members of one family.”
It is one of several black cemeteries in Charleston that have been threatened or nearly lost. Others have been paved, built or forgotten.
St. John’s Cemetery is an important part of the history of Black Catholicism in the Lowcountry. John England, first bishop of Charleston, reported in 1833 that about 1,200 slaves in the city were Catholic. These numbers would increase.
In 1853 a subdivided portion of a large piece of land near Line Street was purchased by the Most Reverend Richard S. Baker, Administrator of the Diocese, for $650 and held in trust for the Diocese, “for the use of the colored Roman Catholic population of the City of Charleston and Charleston Neck, as a cemetery or burial place for said colored or free slaves.”
A fascinating combination of cultures and religious practices has produced a unique expression of Black Catholicism in the Lowcountry.
European slave traders introduced their religion to African slave traders and captives, so Catholicism spread to the Lowcountry. A few planter families, particularly those along the Ashepoo River in Colleton County, west of Walterboro, had converted to Catholicism in the late 1700s and early 1800s, influencing slaves who worked in the rice fields, according to Suzanne Krebsbach, author of the 2002 essay. “Catholic, Black and Proud.”
The presence of Spanish settlers in the southeast also helped introduce Catholicism to the region, and it is likely that black Catholics from parts of the Caribbean and Louisiana – French and Spanish colonies – added to the population. Charleston area local.
Initially, white and black Catholics shared the same churches, although slaves were relegated to the galleries. But walking down the peninsula to St. Mary’s or the cathedral was impractical for black worshipers who lived farther north. In 1867, the diocese established the first church for African American Catholics in Charleston, St. Peter’s, at 34 Wentworth St., the site of a former Jewish synagogue.
In 1880, the diocese dedicated the first Church of the Immaculate Conception at the corner of Coming and Shepard streets. In 1904, the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy transformed it into a parish school for African-Americans. The cemetery served as a playground.
In 1928, a new, larger, brick-built Church of the Immaculate Conception was opened on the site. The school attracted not only the city’s black Catholics, but also African Americans of other faiths. The last recorded burial at the cemetery was in 1930.
In 1965, the diocese sold part of the cemetery property to the state highway department so that the Crosstown—later named the Septima P. Clark Parkway—could be built. And as desegregation took hold, Catholic officials closed St. Peter’s and Immaculate Conception in 1967 and merged their congregations with St. Patrick’s Church, which until then had been predominantly white.
Once Catholics abandoned the property near Line Street, the cemetery fell into oblivion – until 1994, when St. Patrick’s parishioners worked with Calvary Episcopal Church to retain the Chicora Foundation for the purpose of studying the site.
This research prevented a real estate transaction that would likely have resulted in construction projects which, in turn, would have further obscured the history of this sacred site.
Instead, now volunteers are working with the diocese to recover a nearly erased piece of Charleston’s history and to ensure that those buried in this hallowed ground can rest undisturbed.