Searching for Oratory

It took a charismatic Paul Hatch to envision an Oratory at Rock Hill. It would fall to others to establish it. Years of searching for Oratory are significant in our history.

The early years just described required a very special commitment to Church and to a vision. Those first members were heroic and established a solid foundation despite knowing very little about the Oratory. Somehow they caught Philip’s spirit, and his values were evidenced in lifestyle and ministry.

Significant events occurred in 1947 which allow us to identify that year as the beginning of what we will call the years of “searching for the Oratory.” But first we must tell a bit about what was happening to the Rock Hill congregation at that time.

While the school for boys did much good, it drained financial resources which were extremely limited to begin with. It obscured a clear vision of the direction the Oratory would go, with the resulting departures of some. Yet the very hardships endured had a bonding effect, and the “Pearl Harbor survivors” now dreamed of finding out more about Philip and the Oratory.

The qualities evidenced by the members from 1934-1947 would best be identified as a remarkable spirit of sacrifice: i.e., substandard living conditions, living without security, dealing with the anti-Catholic sentiment in South Carolina at that time, attempting to do ministry with no funds, long distances, few Catholics.

The qualities needed during the years of searching for Oratory would be another kind. The early yars found the young Oratorians pretty much fending for themselves when it came to knowing the spirit, charisms and legacy of Philip Neri and legacy of Philip Neri and the traditions of the Oratory. The challenge was clearly to establish the Oratory: i.e., to not be content with doing ministry, but to study, to discern and to set future directions.

Up until 1947, except for Father Ernest Musial, the Rock Hill Oratorians never met brother Oratorian. What a blessing from God it was that the first they met was Father Charles Naldi of the Oratory of Florence, Italy. In 1947, he held the position of Procurator General in the Oratory and was helping to prepare the Oratorian Congress scheduled for 1948. (A Congress is a gathering of representatives of all the Oratories throughout the world — in a grouping then known as the Institute and now called the Confederation — to deal with legislation, common life, customs, traditions, and ministry, and which serves as liaison to each congregation and the Holy See.)

Father Naldi was well founded in the spirit of Philip and the Oratory. He was a good communicator and by nature an optimistic person. When he observed how well the Rock Hill Oratory had begun despite being deficient in concrete Oratorian knowledge and traditions, he set about the task of helping to educate the members. He affirmed them by saying he was delighted in what he saw here without the benefit of ever having seen or visited another Oratory. He introduced the members to the Constitutions of the Oratory, taking them through the text line by line. He stayed several months sharing Oratorian customs and traditions and revealing much of the spirit of St. Philip. Before long he was convinced that the Rock Hill Oratory was indeed ready for admittance into the Institute: i.e., to be established as a Congregation of the Oratory of Pontifical Rite. He negotiated with Bishop Walsh who was most happy to grant the document of approval. The Rock Hill was pontifically established in October 1947.

Whereas from 1934-1947 the Oratory was dedicated to building up the church, even to the point of sacrificing by putting its own identity and future on the back burner, from 1947 a new type of dedication was needed. The congregation was now being called to get in touch with its roots, to learn its unique charism, to plan the future direction it would take. We found the challenge to grow spiritually, to become an Oratory was every bit as demanding as those early years — even more so. When Father Naldi returned home in 1947, he left with us a real treasure in a rosary used by St. Philip. But he left us a greater treasure, the realization we were now a bona fide Oratory assuming responsibilities in the Institute.

While Rock Hill Oratory continued its search for authentic Oratorian life, it did not overlook its environment. Among the significant accomplishments of the Oratorians who were supported by courageous laity during this period of time, we can note the following. In the 1940’s the Oratory played a major role in the implementation of the papal social encyclicals by helping to establish labor unions. This did not endear the Oratorians to many.

In the 1940’s the City of Rock Hill was typical of southern cities. Racial segregation was practiced. There were no recreational facilities for black youth. St. Mary’s Church was started in the black neighborhood and attracted youth to its organizations and provided tutorial help to overcome poor quality education. The young blacks flocked to what they called “The Catholic” — St. Mary’s Parish. In 1954, the year the Supremem Court called for the desegregation of schools, St. Anne’s School become the first integrated school in South Carolina. Courageous leadership by the Oratory and equally courageous cooperation of the parishioners of St. Anne’s and St. Mary’s made its mark on the entire south. The Ku Klux Klan burned a cross outside the school. It took many years for some to forgive the Oratory “for that sin.”

In the 1960’s, when Black America rallied from the call of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, the Oratorians marched with the people, participated in sit-in demonstrations and received life-threatening calls.

As all this was going on, the Rock Hill Oratory became involved in the life of the Institute of the Oratory by attending Congresses, by sending two members each year to visit Oratories in Europe, and even by having its own members eventually elected to hold offices in the Institute.

Another significant contribution of the Rock Hill Oratory to the Oratorian communities around the world was the establishment of the Cardinal Newman Oratorian College, which functioned from 1958-63. Members were trained to staff a philosophical and theological faculty which could provide formal education for other congregations. Some students from Mexico and El Salvador came to Rock Hill. This effort was terminated when it became evident the direction the Second Vatican Council encouraged was away from small internal institutions of learning. But the Rock Hill Oratory had now taken its place in the Institute and now was ready to move into the post Vatican II years of renewal.