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The Diocese of Charleston (Carolopolitana) now comprises the entire State of South Carolina, U.S.A. (area 30,170 sq. miles). It was established 12 July, 1820, and then included both Georgia and North Carolina. The former state became the territory of the new Diocese of Savannah in 1850, and in 1868 North Carolina became a vicariate Apostolic. Mass was first said in Charleston in 1786, by an Italian [illustration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist] priest on his way to South America, for a congregation of twelve persons. A year or two later the congregation numbered about 200, at which time an Irish priest named O'Reilly (according to Ramsay) or Ryan (according to Shea) celebrated Mass for 200 Catholics in an abandoned Methodist meeting-house. In 1789 this property was purchased by the Rev. Thomas Keating and the building renovated as St. Mary's Church. Religious disabilities were still on the law-books, but in 1791 an Act of the Legislature incorporated the Roman Catholic Church of Charleston. The first Bishop of Charleston, the Rt. Rev. John England, was consecrated in Cork, Ireland, 21 Sept., 1820, and reached Charleston in December of that year. Because of dissentions in St. Mary's congregation he erected a plain wooden structure in 1821, and made it his cathedral under the title of St. John and St. Finbar. His admirable administration marks an epoch not only in the history of the diocese, but also in that of the Catholic Church in the United States and is more fully treated in the article JOHN ENGLAND. He died 11 April, 1842, lamented by all. His former coadjutor, the Rt. Rev. William Clancy was transferred in 1843 to the Vicariate Apostolic of Guinea. The second Bishop of Charleston, the Rt. Rev. Ignatius A. Reynolds, was consecrated in Cincinnati, 10 March, 1844, and signalized his episcopate by the publication of an edition (in five volumes) of the works of his predecessor and the erection of a new cathedral. He was a very ascetic man and tireless worker, and died 9 March, 1855. The third bishop of the see was the Rt. Rev. Neisen Lynch, a brilliant graduate of the Propaganda Col-[pg. 631] lege at Rome, and one of the most learned members of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States; his numerous lectures, essays and treatises exhibit the versatility and accuracy of his knowledge. His episcopate was marked by grievous afflictions. The disastrous fire of 1861, closely following the opening of hostilities in Charleston harbour during the Civil War, destroyed the cathedral, the bishop's residence, and other valuable property, together with the diocesan library. The subsequent bombardment of the city for nearly two years wrought further damage, closed most of the churches, and depleted and impoverished the congregations. General Sherman's occupation of Columbia was marked by the burning of St. Mary's College, the Sisters' Home, and the Ursuline Convent.

Towards the end of the war Bishop Lynch went to Europe as the accredited representative of the Confederacy on a confidential mission. On his return immediately after the war, he stood in the midst of ruins, among a destitute and dejected people, with a diocesan debt of over $200,000 pressing upon him. He at once began to collect funds throughout the country for the immediate needs of his diocese and to liquidate its indebtedness. Most of the succeeding seventeen years were devoted to this work; he left but a small balance of the debt unpaid at his death, 22 February, 1882, having in the meantime built a pro-cathedral, purchased an episcopal residence and restored much church property. He was a member of the Vatican Council (1869-1870) to which he was accompanied by the Rev. Dr. James A. Corcoran one of the most erudite of the American priesthood then working in the Charleston Diocese. During the frequent absence of Bishop Lynch the diocese was ably governed by his vicar-general, Dr. Quigley, pastor of St. Patrick's Church, under whom was opened St. Francis Xavier's Infirmary, built with the bequest of a devout lady, and conducted by the Sisters of Mercy.

The fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Henry Pinckney Northrop (consecrated 8 January, 1882), was transferred (27 January, 1883) from the Vicariate Apostolic of North Carolina to Charleston. On the night of 31 August, 1886, Charleston was visited by an earthquake which wrecked the pro-cathedral and episcopal residence, and wrought great damage to ecclesiastical property in the city. Through the generous contributions of benefactors in the North, churches, rectories and institutions were completely restored. Under previous bishops churches were erected in the principal cities of the diocese. Bishop Northrop kept pace with the material progress of the State, and dedicated twelve churches, besides the new Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, one of the most beautiful in the South, consecrated 14 April, 1907. The solicitude of Bishop Lynch for the spiritual welfare of the coloured people was emulated by his successors. In 1867 Bishop Lynch purchased and dedicated a church for them exclusively. Its flourishing school is in charge of the Sisters of Mercy residing at St. Catherine's Convent attached to the church, established under Bishop Northrop, and named for Mother Catherine Drexel, the generous benefactress of this church and school and of the coloured congregation at Catholic Cross Roads. The Sisters of Mercy, who were introduced in 1829, care for the orphans and devote their educational labours to academies and parochial schools. The Ursulines began their foundation in 1834, and have had as pupils daughters of the leading citizens of the State. In 1907 Bishop Northrop introduced the Ladies of the Cenacle. The religious statistics (1908) are as follows: Priests, 19; churches with resident priests, 12; missions with churches, 17; stations, 75; religious women and postulants, 98; students in seminary, 4; academies for young ladies, 5; pupils, 337; parishes with parochial schools, 8; pupils, 590; orphans and cared for, 72; hospital, 1; Catholic population, 9,650.


SHEA, Hist. of Cath. Ch. in U.S. (New York, 1889-92); O'GORMAN, Hist. of the Cath. Ch. in the U.S. (New York, 1895, passim; The United States Catholic Miscellany, files (Charleston, 1822-1862).

About this page

APA citation. Duffy, P.L. (1908). Charleston. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Duffy, Patrick Laurence. "Charleston." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Anna R. Dixon.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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