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Church History

In-depth History of Stella Maris
To learn a more indepth history of Stella Maris, you may purchase "Stella Maris Church: A Sesquicentennial History", writen by Dr. James H. Soltow.

This book may be purchase in the parish office for $8.

Brief History of Stella Maris
The present Stella Maris Church is the second Catholic church on Sullivan's Island, and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the Charleston area. The parish had its origins in the 1830s and 1840s when a number of workers, many of them Irish immigrants, came to Sullivan's Island for projects being carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. At that time Sullivan's Island was a summer resort for Charleston's wealthier residents, while the year-round residents were primarily immigrant workers for various Federal projects as well as those who served the summer residents.


Stella Maris, c. 1920's

Inside view of Stella Maris as it looks today.
Church Nave, 2002
 

A Catholic diocese was coming into being in Charleston at the same time as these new immigrants were increasing the population of Sullivan's Island. The new diocese, under the leadership of Bishop John England, saw the need for a mission church on the island. From the 1830s the Diocese sent priests to the island on a regular basis during the summer months to offer Mass and provide instruction. At that time, however, services took place in private homes. Father Patrick McGowan, a priest on the staff of the Diocese and himself an Irish immigrant, organized the construction of the Church of St. John the Baptist on Sullivan's Island. A lot was purchased in April of 1845, slightly to the west of the present church. The church, a small wooden building, was completed later that summer. The first Mass was said in June, 1845, just two days before the Feast of St. John the Baptist.

The Church of St. John the Baptist remained in place through the War Between the States. Sullivan's Island, the home of Fort Moultrie, suffered extensive bombardment by Federal troops, and by the end of the war, in 1865, the church was the only public building left standing on the island. Father Timothy Bermingham, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Charleston, took up Sullivan's Island as a special project in the late 1860s. He first planned to rehabilitate the old church. By 1868, however, Father Bermingham developed the idea that a new church building should be the centerpiece for a restoration of Sullivan's Island as a popular resort.

Father Bermingham bought the present church lot in October, 1868, for $100. He secured permission from the Secretary of War to use bricks from the ruins of Fort Moultrie to build the new church; indeed, in his enthusiasm for the project, he occasionally had to be physically restrained from tearing down additional walls of the Fort to secure even more bricks. On 18 January 1869 Father Bermingham laid the cornerstone for the new church, which he first called Saint Mary, Star of the Sea, or Stella Maris. Both Protestants and Catholics on the Island donated their time and efforts to clean the bricks from Fort Moultrie and help with the construction. Unfortunately, Father Bermingham died in June, 1872, barely a year before it was completed. Father Henry Northrop, later the Bishop of Charleston, took over the completion of the church, and the first Mass was said on 3 August 1873.

A year later, on 21 June 1874, the Solemn Dedication took place. This was an elaborate ceremony including the Asperges, a procession around the exterior of the church and back inside, the Litany of the Saints, and a vesper service; the ceremony was concluded by a Solemn High Mass. It was an important social event in the Charleston area as well, and both Protestants and Catholics paid the $1 ticket price to take a boat to the island and get a seat.

The interior of the church was completed over the next several years. In 1877, the Sanctuary was completed, an organ from St. Paul's Church in Charleston was installed, and the grooved ceiling resembling a ship's hull was put in place. The steeple tower was built in 1880-1881. An illuminated statue of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, was first placed on the dome of the tower in 1936. This first statue was badly damaged by lightning in 1961, and the present statue was put in place. The church was still a mission until 1883, when a priest was in residence at the church on a full-time basis.

Stella Maris itself created a mission church in Mt. Pleasant in the early twentieth century. The first mission church as the Mission of the Sacred Heart, located on Pitt Street near Alhambra Hall. The mission operated until 1930, when it was closed. Stella Maris School, which began in 1950 in a small brick building adjacent to the Rectory, grew rapidly, and in 1953 a new school in Mt. Pleasant was built. At the same time, the Christ Our King Chapel was created at the Stella Maris School. Christ Our King became a separate parish in 1973, and their new church was built in 1979.

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