As Protestant churches in South Carolina dwindle, Catholic churches flourish. Here’s why

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The membership of St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in Bluffton has grown by a whopping 70 percent in the past decade and is now 10,000 strong.

Sunday Masses are crowded as latecomers squeeze into pews or stand in the back of the church. Twelve Masses are held Friday evening through Sunday — two of which are in Spanish. And work is underway on a new parish life center for community events.

It’s not the only S.C. Catholic Church experiencing a rebirth. While mainline Protestant churches across the state are shedding members — even shutting down — Catholic churches are flourishing, buoyed by a growing community of Hispanic families and Northeastern retirees.

Statewide, the number of individual Catholics registered with churches grew by about 19 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to a review of S.C. church records by the newspapers.

With the number of registered individuals with St. Gregory’s Catholic Church leaping from about 6,000 in 2008 to more than 10,000 in 2017, its growth far outpaces the rest of South Carolina. It is now the second-largest in the state, behind St. Mary Magdalene in Simpsonville, with 1,300 registered individuals.

The sheer size of St. Gregory’s, which holds 800 people, is a far cry from Bluffton’s old church. St Andrew’s chapel, with its small wooden pews and blue carpet, could seat only 125 worshipers.

But that’s not all that’s different.

Walk by St. Gregory’s on Sunday afternoon, and you might hear a choir singing cheerful songs in Spanish or a priest asking the crowd a question: “Si o no?”

“Si,” shout back the parishioners.

Major Masses, including the Christmas and Easter Vigil, are said both in Spanish and English. Lectors alternate between Spanish and English scripture readings. One priest presents his homily in English. Another priest does the same in Spanish.

In fact, if a priest wants to be ordained in South Carolina, he now must speak fluent English and Spanish, said Monsignor Ronald Cellini.

The blending of these two cultures is more synergistic than tense, said Tom Drury, a priest-in-training who just finished his first year of seminary in Florida and spent the summer working in Bluffton.

“Having this summer experience, and seeing how it comes together — seeing how the Hispanic community and English community collaborate — it really is a single entity,” Drury said.

The changing face of America, the changing face of Catholicism

Why the change?

For one, South Carolina — and especially Beaufort County and other S.C. coastal communities — are experiencing a sort of reverse-Northern migration, where Catholic families and retirees from the Northeast move to the sunny South.

And then there’s migration in the opposite direction — Hispanics moving to Beaufort County from states further to the south or Latin American countries. About half of Latinos are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center. Twenty percent have no religion, while 19 percent are Evangelical Protestant.

In 2016, the Hispanic population in the United States reached 58 million, about 11 percent of the country’s population, according to projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It also accounted for more than half of the country’s population growth from 2000 to 2016.

For the most part, South Carolina hasn’t seen the same numbers. In 2016, Hispanics made up 5.4 percent of the state’s residents. But Beaufort County had double the Hispanic population of the rest of the state, making up an estimated 11.8 percent of the county’s residents.

And the numbers will continue to grow. By 2050, Hispanic residents will make up 23 percent of the people living the United States, according to projections for the BLS.

All of that has translated to a growth in the Catholic population.

About 34 percent of Catholics in the U.S. are Hispanic, according to the most recent data from the Pew Research Center.

So while the Catholic population is, for the most part, graying — half of U.S. Catholics are 50 and older, and Catholic baptisms dropped to 18 percent in 2014 — much of the population lost from millennial Anglo-Catholics is being offset by the growth in Hispanic immigrants.

In response to this Hispanic growth, U.S. bishops will meet for a gathering this September in Texas called V Encuentro. The goal of the gathering: to identify and train 20,000 new Hispanic ministry leaders to meet the needs of the U.S. Catholic Church’s shifting demographics. Representatives from the Charleston Diocese will attend V Encuentro as well.

Home sweet Lowcountry

St. Gregory’s church began offering Spanish Mass in 2004, when parishioner Jenny Bermejo was 6 and a year after her family moved from Mexico.

The church meant everything to Bermejo’s family. And since they were still learning to speak English, it made sense to attend Catholic Mass.

“We were still pretty new to South Carolina, so hearing Mass in Spanish really brought us a sense of home,” Bermejo said.

Bermejo remembers that in those first few years, the crowd on Sundays was relatively small, consisting of maybe 100, 150 people. The same 10 people sang in the choir and served as ushers and Eucharistic ministers every week. Bermejo became an altar server as soon as she went through her first Communion at 8.

Over time, Bermejo noticed that the Sunday crowd slowly became larger and larger. Bluffton Hispanic Ministry leaders had been doing the work, knocking on doors, surveying the Hispanic community and asking what they’d like to see in the church.

These days, about 600 people attend Spanish Mass every weekend, said Bermejo, who now works at the church as the Hispanic Ministry assistant.

The church also provides several services specifically for its immigrant communities. In a time when the legal status of immigrants and their children is precarious, for instance, the St. Gregory’s Hispanic ministry invites lawyers to run immigration workshops.

“We’re always helping out our Hispanic community in whatever we needs they have,” said Sister Margarita Morales, who leads the Hispanic Ministry, as translated by Bermejo.

In many ways, the growing Hispanic population has transformed the culture and rituals of St. Gregory’s.

Bermejo especially loves the tradition of Las Posadas. Every December at St. Gregory’s, the Hispanic members of the church gather to follow a re-enactment of the story of Jesus’ birth. In a short procession, they follow a woman who plays the Virgin Mary to a small Nativity scene at the the church steps. They sing Spanish carols. They pray the rosary. The children hit pinatas and eat candy. It’s a small taste of their old home in their new home.

Indeed, the Catholic church has fostered a sense of community among the Hispanic population in the Lowcountry.

Nowhere is that more apparent than on a blazing mid-July Sunday in Hardeeville, where Spanish-speaking parishioners from Jasper and Beaufort counties gathered to raise money for displaced Guatemalans after a volcanic explosion.

The parking lot of a bank-turned-St. Anthony’s Church was packed food tents selling mangoes and gorditas, inflatable water slides, parents fanning themselves under the shade and children running around in soaked clothing. Empanadas sizzled, music blasted and the air smelled of fried foods.

“When the Hispanics come up here, they’re even more active in the church than they were in South America,” said Monsignor Cellini.

The Lowcountry provides Latin American immigrants with a sense of familiarity, said Elena Fernandez, a Hardeeville parishioner who helped organize the fundraiser.

“They like it quiet, the way it is here in the Lowcountry,” said Fernandez, who was born in Florida as a first-generation American. “For a lot of them, it’s the way it is in their home country. They grew up in farms and rural areas.”

But Hispanic parishioners didn’t always have such a strong sense of community in the Lowcountry, said Fernandez. It wasn’t until about five or six years ago that the area’s Latin American families — from Guatemala, Colombia and many from Mexico — developed such a tight-knit network.

Cellini says the growth isn’t merely a blip on the radar. The Hispanic parishioners are not transient wanderers, he says, but rooted residents.

“The Bluffton Hispanic community is here — it’s not a migrant community,” he said. “Kids grow up here. They’ve been here, they’re staying here.”