Early Years

uJst as you cannot understand the Oratory without knowing St. Philip Neri, you cannot understand the Rock Hill Oratory without knowing Father Paul Hatch. This extraordinarily gifted man dreamed of establishing the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in the United States. As he searched for a place, he was aided by a good friend, Monsignor John Brady, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in New York City, who introduced him to the Bishop of Charleston, Emmet Michael Walsh. Bishop Walsh welcomed the establishment of the Oratory and recommended Rock Hill and its missions as its location.

The Rev. Edward Wahl, top center, raised money to start St. Mary's Catholic Church on Crawford Road. Here he joins in a roundtable discussion with black youths in 1947.

Before telling of the Oratory’s beginning at Rock Hill, we digress briefly to tell how the church was established there. The first known Catholic to move to Rock Hill was Anne Cassidy Welsh, the wife of Dr. J. E. Welsh, a dentist. She came from Eyota, Minnesota, in 1919. Father William Tobin, a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, offered the first mass in Rock Hill that year commuting from Columbis, over seventy miles away. In 1920, St. Anne’s Church was built on Saluda Avenue on property donated by the Kervick family. From 1920-1925, Father Tobin was the pastor. He was followed from 1925-1929 by Father William Mulvahill. In 1929, the Jesuit Fathers from the southern province at New Orleans administered the parish with Father Patrick Ryan, S.J.; Father A.T. Shelby, S.J.; and Father Joseph Farrell, S.J. as pastors. The parish population was one hundred souls — not famlies — in 1934 when the Oratorians arrived.

On May 26, 1934, the feast of St. Philip Neri, Father Paul Hatch, declaring that he saw “…providential arrangements of circumstances…” offered mass at St. Anne’s parish.

Among the gifts Father Paul had, we can number a great grasp of the spirit of St. Philip; the ability to call forth from people their idealism and commitment; and a reckless abandon founders need, for he could only focus on opportunities and trust problems to Divine Providence. When he searched for young men to establish the Oratory, he promised only that they would be on the ground floor of a new community where they would be wanted and needed. He told them it would be difficult; that they would have to trust in God; that he was not even sure where their meals would come from; and that they were going into an area with fewer Catholics than China.

In a letter preserved in the archives of the London Oratory, which Father Paul wrote to Father Juvenal Matthews, he showed his vision of establishing the Oratory at Rock Hill corresponded to St. Philip’s spirit: i.e., we would settle in one area and have a great affection for the people here; that we would preach simply; minister to the poor and sick; consider the Oratory as our only home, operating out of it but returning daily; and would adapt to the specific needs of this place. He also dreamed of this Oratory fostering new foundations.

Father Paul Hatch, founder of the Rock Hill Oratory, bottom right corner, and the members of The Oratory in 1935. Next to Fr. Paul is then Bishop of Charleston, Emmet Michael Walsh

Father Paul realized he needed help in learning Oratorian life and teaching it to the young men who were arriving in Rock Hill. This congregation owes a great debt of gratitude to Father Ernest Musial of the Oratory in Leipzig, Germany, who came here and lived with us. He agreed to serve as superior (Provost) while Father Paul recruited candidates and raised necessary funds. Also the Oratories of London and Birmingham, England, helped immensely.

 

By August 1935, there were twenty-five members. There was just one table and meal service for eight, so meals were taken in shifts.

A house at the corner of Charlotte and Aiken Avenues with sixteen rooms was purchased. It bears the name of Newman Hall in honor of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The words of this well-known Oratorian along with a painting Father Musial provided of St. Philip combined to inspire the early young arrivals. “The picture of St. Philip Neri is ever in this Chapel and his image is ever in our hearts.

The presence of the Oratory began to be felt in carrying out a work very dear to Philip: i.e., care of youth. The young congregation set aside a portion of the sixteen-room house to receive boys — many from broken homes — in a boarding school. In 1937, as the school continued to grow, a gift of benefactors allowed the construction of Faber Hall, named after Frederick William Faber of the London Oratory, a brother Oratorian of John Henry Newman.

From 1935, the Oratorians were co-workers with the Franciscan Sisters from Peoria, Illinois, who did marvelous work at St. Philips’ Hospital in Rock Hill. In 1937, Divine Savior Hospital in York opened, staffed also by the same Franciscans, later by Sisters of St. Augustine from Cleveland, Ohio, and eventually, in 1941, by the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy from Charleston, who still serve there. At this period, the Oratory sent out young members to evangelize in Union, Chester, Lancaster, Great Falls, Fort Mill, and York. Their clear mission urged by Bishop Walsh was to seek converts to Catholicism. The Rock Hill Oratory, adapting the spirit of Philip to South Carolina, covered a vast area of 3,500 square miles but still lived community life. And in an area with fewer than 1% Catholic population, it was remarkable how much of what Philip did was still accomplished. The Oratorians went out to the people. Yet, the Oratory was frequented by people coming to pray, to hear the Word, to be instructed in the faith.

Pearl Harbor dominates the news of the world for 1941. Our senior members pass on to us that 1941 was also the year of the Oratory’s own Pearl Harbor! Pearl Harbor.

Father Paul, the wonderful charismatic visionary, was attempting to be — all at once — pastor, superior, novice master, fund-raiser. He was under great stress. The school now had 150 boys. The Oratorian seminarians were extended in their assignments to teach at the school and had to delay their own education.

The Oratorians pray at The Oratory School, which opened in 1937.

Funds to provide necessities were not forthcoming. Those who were told by Father Paul that they may not know where their next meal would come from, found this to be true. It was not uncommon for a meal to be a piece of dry bread with sugar water over it and a half of a canned peach. The Oratory owed the butcher, the grocer, everyone. St. Mary’s College in Kentucky and St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana waited until the mid-1950’s to receive tuition payments for the students sent there in our early years. Father Paul the Oratory due to “burn out.

Bishop Walsh, who was strictly speaking, the cannonical superior, was most understanding and compassionate. He visited the Oratory to talk with the community. It was clear some choices had to be made. He outlined these options: They could call the thing off and go home. They could join the Diocese of Charleston or any other diocese or community with his support. Or they could hang in there. There were some thirty-five members. Some went home. Some went to other places. Some joined the diocese. Some stayed. Those who stayed view the “Oratory’s Pearl Harbor” as a crisis, a turning point. It was a time in which, with God’s help, they became a community. The members were a close-knit group and developed deep relationships. All shared their fears and hopes. They did not hide their weaknesses. As one wag put it, “How could we? We lived in such cramped quarters.