Greenville, South Carolina, was not a place I knew before I came to America just over three-and-a-half years ago. It is a smart modern town within view of the Blue Ridge mountains, and a hub of the motor industry, playing home to both BMW and Michelin.
Greenville is also home to Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Protestant university with its own creed and strong insistence on the King James Version. It is, as they say, the “buckle of the Bible Belt”. But it is also a place of remarkable Catholic life. Over the past few years I have been privileged to get to know the town through its astonishing Catholic communities.
Last month, as we celebrated Thanksgiving, I travelled down to Greenville to stay with my good friend Fr Christopher Smith, parish priest of Prince of Peace, one of several parishes in the town. Prince of Peace is unlike any parish I have ever known. Mass is celebrated daily in both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form. There are some 200 children newly enrolled in the Religious Education programme (it seems absurd to call it Sunday School), and the place is a powerhouse for vocations, conversions and reversions. And, seriously, how many altar servers can you fit in a sanctuary?
On Sunday I celebrated the parish Sung Mass in English, which was followed by a comfortably full congregation for the Extraordinary Form, with the choir singing a beautiful 15th-century Mass setting. After Mass a parishioner commented favourably on my homily, proudly showing me the notes he had made in the margin of his missalette, a tip picked up from Matthew Kelly’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. Later we swung by a coffee shop for a quick caffeine boost, only to be (happily) surrounded by more parishioners who wanted to say hello, have a chat or buy us breakfast.
The previous evening we had attended the dedication of the new Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. This stunning new building is the work of Fr Dwight Longenecker, who has created a truly noble place of worship. The church was packed out for the dedication, which wouldn’t have been so surprising had it not been for the fact that it was the second church dedication in Greenville that day. In the morning the Vietnamese community, who have recently bought and converted a Baptist church, had their new home consecrated by the same bishop.
On Sunday afternoon we went to St Mary’s, the historic downtown church referenced in George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism. St Mary’s is known as the mother church of the upstate and itself has a fine liturgical and musical tradition, as well as an impressive array of catechetical programmes.
The parish priest, Fr Jay Scott Newman, has developed a parish campus and life that would be the envy of many dioceses. On the Sundays of Advent the parish hosts Vespers, accompanied by its fine parish choir and the voices of about 100 others in attendance. St Mary’s, too, is a place where many vocations have been nurtured, and where hundreds have discovered and embraced the riches of the Catholic faith. In preaching you’d be hard-pressed to find a Catholic parish that makes more reference to the Scriptures.
After Vespers, as we returned to Prince of Peace in time for Compline – the parish’s own contribution to Advent – it struck me that there are few places outside a monastery where one can attend two sung public offices. Greenville is clearly an exception.
And as if all of that wasn’t enough, Greenville is also home to two smaller but growing communities. The Maronite parish, St Rafka’s, recently had one of its sons (actually an American-born, South Carolina native) ordained a priest. As he was home visiting family for the holiday I was able to have a “first blessing” in Syriac.
There’s also St Anselm’s, a small Ordinariate community. After something of a reboot, the group met for its first Mass according to Divine Worship, the Ordinariate missal, in a local high school chapel. Forty-five people turned up, a number that I am confident will continue to grow – just like everything else in the town.
What is the key to this success? Clearly this is first and foremost a work of the Lord. He has blessed this town with an extraordinary gift. But that gift is not being squandered. All of these parishes have dignified liturgy, all of them teach the faith without compromise and all of them rely on committed laity for the bulk of their work (supported and led by competent, focused priests). Most of these clergy are also converts to Catholicism, a quality that has clearly given them a particular drive and enthusiasm, and an ability to communicate the faith effectively to non-Catholics.
The only problem? It’s difficult to choose which parish to visit when I’m there.
Fr James Bradley is a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham