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Brass Rubbings

Sustainability Church

On an island church.


The first recorded death in the Civil War was an accident. Just two days after the Confederacy besieged Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor, Daniel Hough, a hapless private in the Union Army, was loading the forty-seventh gun in a one-hundred gun salute to the flag. An errant spark ignited his ammunition, blew off his right arm, and instantly killed him. Union commanders, who had just surrendered the fort, cut the salute short at fifty guns. The incident was no doubt terrifying for the enlisted men manning the last three cannons. 

Hough was not even stationed at Fort Sumter when he died. He was actually garrisoned across the harbor at Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island. There he, like many of the other Irishmen in the army, was an active member of Saint John the Baptist parish, where Catholics on the island worshiped. Church records show that less than a year before the war he was a baptismal sponsor for Mary Murphy, daughter of Patrick Murphy, who was likely also stationed at Fort Moultrie. The parish, now called Stella Maris, has been at the intersection of ecclesiastical and military history throughout its existence.

Sullivan’s Island has always been strategically important. During the Revolutionary War, Fort Moultrie withstood a British assault on Charleston because the fibrous palmetto logs from which the fort’s walls were made absorbed Admiral Peter Parker’s cannonfire. Some accounts even claim that cannonballs bounced off the fort. It was the revolutionaries’ first decisive victory (Parker’s breeches were even blown off by Continental cannonfire). And it earned South Carolina its nickname, the Palmetto State. The island’s first Catholic church was a small, dingy wooden building completed in June 1845, just in time for the summer visitors from Charleston who thronged the island. It was named after Saint John the Baptist, perhaps because his feast was only two days after the Dedicatory Mass. By the end of the Civil War, the diocese deemed it unusable. So Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston enlisted Father Timothy Bermingham, an energetic missionary priest and “experienced beggar,” who, like many of the Catholics on Sullivan’s Island, hailed from County Tipperary, to raise money for a new church.

The diocese was flat-broke at the time. It was therefore Father Bermingham’s task to build the new church debt-free. To do so, he canvassed in Europe for funds, even returning to his native Ireland. He also found no shortage of wealthy Charlestonians and Philadelphians to call on for financial support. His efforts paid off, and in January 1869, he laid the cornerstone of Stella Maris Catholic Church, so named because of its seaside location. 

Ever the scrounger, he succeeded in convincing federal officials to donate bricks from the rubble of Fort Moultrie across the street. And, according to contemporary reports, he had to be restrained from pulling down what remained of the fort for additional bricks. A certain Sister DeSales Brennan reported to Bishop Lynch that “Father Bermingham is hard at work on his church. They say he is the Master Bricklayer, has every Catholic on the Island up at four in the morning for Mass, after which he gets to work and can see, hear, or know nothing but bricks!!!”

Though Bermingham died in 1872, the youthful Father Henry P. Northrop continued his work and dedicated the church in June 1874 with a Solemn High Mass, accompanied by Mozart. The new Gothic revival structure was designed by John H. Devereaux, one of the leading British-trained architects in Charleston. He adopted a nautical theme, in keeping with the parish’s name, and shaped the ceiling of the church like a ship’s hull. The walls are paneled in wood with hand-carved embellishments, including Corinthian-capped columns, a touch of Deveraux’s Victorian eclecticism. The fourteen stained glass windows, which were installed in the 1950s—once Fort Moultrie was decommissioned and its booming guns dismantled—depict the mysteries of the Rosary, with the fifteenth mystery represented by the statue of the Virgin and Child on the high altar. Above the stained glass, an ornamental entablature marked by interlocking carved circles symbolizing eternal life runs around the church’s interior perimeter. The bells were installed in 1995 for the parish’s one-hundred-fiftieth anniversary, making it the first Catholic church in North America with a set of the English-style bells. The church is included on the South Carolina Register of Historic Places, along with a few surrounding homes.

The parish’s congregation swells during the summer months. Then, as a feature in a periodical published in 1899 by the Apostleship of Prayer relates, the “scorching Southern sun drives people to a cooler and healthier spot, and in Stella Maris they find spiritual consolations whilst they spend idle hours in recreation.”

The current rector of the parish, Monsignor Lawrence B. McInerny III, whose family hails from County Clare, Ireland, and has resided on Sullivan’s Island since the 1850s, affectionately calls the parish his “Sustainability Church.” After all, he says, the bricks are from the debris of Fort Moultrie. The original altar came from a closed church downtown. The cypress panels in the sanctuary are rumored to be from a boat washed ashore during a storm. The stands for the statues were made from the casing for a former organ. And the sanctuary lamp came from another church in the city. One amusing anecdote about the altar was related to me by the permanent deacon of the parish: the hollow article was used to smuggle and hide prodigious amounts of bootlegged liquor during Prohibition. The non-Catholic sergeant at Fort Moultrie reportedly ran a thriving business selling it to soldiers, who paid for it with their commissary “chits.”

Sullivan’s Island, of course, is not purely a military outpost. It is also the gateway to the Port of Charleston, a fact that becomes obvious when one spies the hulking container ships ponderously moving towards the port as parishioners file into Mass. The island also has its own, more sordid port history. It served as the port of call for slavers, and nearly two hundred thousand enslaved Africans were ferried through the Island between Charleston’s founding in 1670 and 1808 when the transatlantic slave trade was banned. This amounts to nearly forty percent of the total slave trade, and the historian Peter Wood accurately describes Sullivan’s as the Ellis Island of black Americans. Thus Our Lady, Star of the Sea, along with Our Lady of Sorrows, stands sentinel over the most shameful aspect of Southern history, looking down upon this channel of misery and pain and sin. 

In more recent years, Stella Maris has been used as an outpost during South Carolina’s annual storms. The hurricane of 1893, which killed so many residents of the barrier islands further south that newspapermen reported “stacks” of corpses lining the roads, caused significant damage, prompting the addition of the current cypress wood paneling, altar rail, and interior cornice. During the category-five Hurricane Hugo, the most grievous and destructive in Charleston’s history, the storm surge reached roughly hip height in the sanctuary, but the church remained mostly unharmed. The neighboring church hall was used as a staging ground for the National Guard to prevent looting and to offer meals to residents returning to survey the damage and rebuild their homes. 

Hugo accelerated an ongoing shift on Sullivan’s Island. Many longtime residents opted to sell rather than to repair, and the gentrification of the Island community increased rapidly. If you visit today, you can drive through neighborhoods filled with faddish modern homes, though there are still few holdout beach shacks owned by stubborn old-timers who refuse to accommodate the newcomers. Sullivan’s Island is now the most expensive zip code in South Carolina, a place of bustling restaurants, mansions, and tourists who spill over from neighboring Isle of Palms. Yet Stella Maris still towers over the island, with its simple, unpretentious architecture and, crucially, its reverent liturgy. 

The church changed little when the spirit of Vatican II swept through the diocese. It only resulted in the rector of Stella Maris at the time stripping off some of the (rather garish) paint obscuring the rich wood paneling. The high altar, altar rail, and other outdated accouterments remain, then as now, blissfully undisturbed. Monsignor McInerny, who grew up on Sullivan’s Island hearing Mass at Stella Maris, was the first priest in the Diocese of Charleston to receive the Indult to celebrate the Traditional form of the Mass in 2001. He initially only offered it monthly, but the community grew so quickly that a weekly Mass became necessary. This is not to say that the community devoted to the old rite is separate or divided from the entire parish community. The 5:30 p.m. Traditional Latin Mass appears alongside five other Masses available to satisfy one’s Sunday obligation, and Stella Maris, in a certain unobtrusive manner, has pioneered a way forward by pre-emptively disengaging from the liturgy wars. 

In fact, Stella Maris sits at the center of my own encounter with the person of Jesus Christ through the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. My family is from the West Coast, and we converted to Catholicism right before moving to Charleston for my father’s job. We’d originally found a Latin Mass in Seattle celebrated by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter, but when we moved, we were drawn to the vibrant, thriving, welcoming community at Stella Maris. I attended the parish school, Christ Our King-Stella Maris, that stems from Stella Maris’ explosive growth in the 1950s, and later Bishop England High School, where Monsignor McInerny attended and taught for a time. Stella Maris was where I was able to wrestle with the usual adolescent questions of religion, and it provided a simple, solid foundation for a mature faith—even if I didn’t realize it until much later.

Now, I live in Washington, D.C. I still (mostly) attend the old Mass. On those Sundays, I fondly recall crowding the altar boys’ bench, sweating through my cassock and surplice, surreptitiously fanning the air heavy with humidity and flecked with salt from the Atlantic Ocean, kneeling and bending until my forehead almost kissed the cool marble floor of the sanctuary, my lips moving over the eternal words: “I go unto the altar of God, to God who giveth joy to my youth.”

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