St. Mary's center a labor of love

Sister Mary John Nguyen stands in front of the new worship center at St. Mary's Catholic Church. The statue at right is of the parish's patron saint, St. Martin de Porres.
Sister Mary John Nguyen stands in front of the new worship center at St. Mary's Catholic Church. The statue at right is of the parish's patron saint, St. Martin de Porres.

It is the little church that could.

It is the tiny, brick, inner-city church on Rock Hill's Crawford Road, with pink and blue plexiglass windows -- the original stained-glass ones cracked in the 1970s from the vibration of the nearby train.

The tireless members of St. Mary's Catholic Church will come to realize their vision on Sunday morning, when services are held for the first time in the new 7,500-square-foot worship center.

For the first time in a decade, all of St. Mary's members will have a place to sit. No longer will people have to stand cramped together to worship because the congregation long outgrew the church.

The addition has 475 seats, more than enough for everyone in the 450-member church.

"It's been a long time coming," said John Gist, a St. Mary's member who was baptized there in 1983, soon after he started attending with a friend.

Brother David Boone, the parish life facilitator, said the bulk of the money to build the $900,000 addition came from the hard work of church members over the last 10 years.

Their vision for the expansion began in 1996. To accommodate the growing congregation, services had to be moved from the church sanctuary into Bannon Hall, originally the recreational hall.

The church was established in 1964, when the Rev. Edward Wahl, a white priest at The Oratory in Rock Hill, saw the need to start a Catholic church in the Crawford Road area.

Wahl raised money, and St. Mary's was built on the site where it remains today. The church began with five members, all African-American, and some of them still attend.

When it came to raising money for the new worship center, the members of St. Mary's were as driven as Wahl -- they all got involved.

Boone said that in May 2004, most members gave a three-year pledge of $3,000 or whatever amount they could afford.

That raised $365,000. Boone said other donations came from the community and from former church members who had moved away.

Gist said church members raised money by having benefit concerts, bake sales, buffet dinners and festivals. One member let the church raffle off his car.

Building the worship center has brought church members closer, Gist said.

"We're not a large church," he said. "We're not an affluent church, but we are a combination of people who genuinely enjoy and love each other and care about how each other feel. We're all part of something special."

Ron Trone, a member of St. Mary's fundraising committee, said the worship center is an accomplishment. "It is a great feeling that an inner-city church could put up a $900,000 building."

Not only were church members involved in the fundraising, they were involved in building, too. The project's construction manager, Tony Ventura of Benchmark Builders, is a church member.

Ventura said every Saturday for the past four months, members have been doing tile work, landscaping, carpentry and cleaning.

"It's been a labor of love," he said.

Although the church had to obtain some financing for the addition, Boone said they plan to pay that off as soon as possible because there are more plans.

Boone said they want to replace the roof on the old part of the church to match the new addition. And they want to renovate Bannon Hall, home to the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen. They hope to start within five years.

But for now, construction crews and volunteers have been busy putting finishing touches on the new church to get the certificate of occupancy before Sunday. And they are eagerly awaiting the arrival of an important piece of furniture.

Boone said the altar is supposed to be delivered today. And it's not just any altar. The altar is made of mahogany and ebony wood from Africa.

Boone said the ebony wood symbolizes St. Mary's African-American roots.

Those five original members had a vision that slowly but steadily brought a small church to the size it is today. Since then, the congregation has become more diverse, with a mix of worshipers of all races.

And now, there is room for them all.

The additional seating is such a big deal that Ventura jokes he could probably raffle seats.

Vera Jones, a church member since the 1960s, already has claimed her green padded pew.

Trone is looking forward to having a seat, too. "In the old place, it was cramped," he said.

When asked if he thinks the new worship center will attract new members, Trone said, "Well, you know what they say: If you build it, they will come."