Railroad is beginning of line for 100-year-old South Carolina church

IMAGE: CNS photo/Christina Lee Knauss, The Catholic Miscellany

By Christina Lee Knauss

S.C. (CNS) — For a century, a simple but serenely beautiful wooden building
tucked away in the picturesque mountain town of Walhalla has been the spiritual
home for Catholics.

Francis of Assisi Mission was built by parishioners who donated their time, money, hours of sweat and labor, and even the wood, so they could have
their own church. Today, the mission is home to a small but strong congregation
who love and care for each other and treasure the little building passed down
to them by that early group of dedicated people.

May 13, current and former members packed the small church nearly to
overflowing for a 100th anniversary celebration. Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone
of Charleston celebrated Mass followed by a joyful reception in the parish

bishop congratulated the members of St. Francis on their close-knit community.

come to an understanding of who Jesus is through seeing others who live a
Christian life well-lived, and for 100 years people here at St. Francis have
been doing precisely that,” he said.

were few and far-flung in this corner of the state in the early 19th century.
Their numbers increased when 600 Irish Catholics moved to the area to work on
the proposed Blue Ridge Railroad in the 1850s. The project was an ill-fated
attempt to connect South Carolina with Tennessee for trade, and called for
tunnels to go through several mountains in the area, including Stumphouse
Mountain near Walhalla.

Irish worked on what became known as the Stumphouse Tunnel, and a small town
called Tunnel Hill sprang up near the construction site. It had its own church,
St. Patrick, which was served by itinerant priests, and for a while had the
largest Catholic congregation in the northwest part of the state, according to
a published history.

for the railroad dried up and the tunnel was abandoned. The town of Tunnel Hill
slowly died away and with it St. Patrick Church, which was partially destroyed
by fire, then damaged by storms. It is said that the wood of the church was
scavenged for firewood by homeless Civil War deserters. All that remains of the
church and the town is a cemetery northwest of Walhalla.

of the descendants of those Irish workers remained in Walhalla and surrounding
areas of Oconee County and still needed a place to worship. In 1916,
construction began on the church building on East Mauldin Street, on land
purchased from Rosa Fahnstock by Bishop Henry P. Northrop. Parishioners used
lumber from their farms for the building. It was completed in 1916 and
officially dedicated as a mission on May 13, 1917, by Bishop William T.

Francis was originally a mission of St. Joseph Church in Anderson, then St.
Andrew Church in Clemson, and now is connected to St. Paul the Apostle in
Seneca. Diocesan priests served there from 1917 through 1940, and then Paulist
priests took the helm from 1940 through 2006. Priests from the diocese returned
to the mission in 2006. The current pastor is Father William Hearne.

St. Francis of Assisi was dedicated, there were only 12 Catholic families. By
1940, those numbers had grown to 128 Catholics in Oconee and Pickens counties,
including 52 students at what was then Clemson College. Currently, the mission
serves about 125 households in a region where the number of faithful continues
to grow.

93, Jenny Grobusky is the oldest member of St. Francis. She is a Walhalla
native and became Catholic when she married. She raised her five children at
St. Francis of Assisi and has never considered going anywhere else.

very real closeness we have here is what makes it special,” she told The
Catholic Miscellany, Charleston’s diocesan newspaper. “You know everybody and
everyone cares for each other.”

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is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of

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