FORT MILL — Special to the Fort Mill Times
It took 20 years, but St. Philip Neri’s new sanctuary will be dedicated at 7 p.m. Friday.
It’s no ordinary, run-of the-mill church. It has soaring, multi-planed wooden beam ceilings; rounded wooden Amish-built pews with kneelers; six stained glass windows, with nine more on the way; marble steps, altar and holy water font; welcoming bricks with names of the faithful etched in the stones; and a bell tower with five bells to ring the hours 9, 12 and 6.
“It’s a place to meditate and be spiritual, which is so needed in this busy world,” said the Rev. John Giuliani, parish pastor.
The chapel will be open all day, every day with an access code for users.
Initially a parish of 44 families who came together in 1993, St. Philip Neri Catholic Church has evolved, today, to a gathering of 2,200 families at its 292 Munn Road home. It has also been instrumental in the formation of Our Lady of Grace Catholic community in Indian Land.
“I’ve been here for 30 years,” said parishioner Roberta Whitaker. “I needed these people and when they came into my life, my life changed.”
Giuliani credits the foresight of Bishop David B. Thompson for realizing the need for a larger Catholic presence in the Rock Hill/Fort Mill area, but many of his parishioners credit Giuliani’s inimitable charm with the success of St. Philip Neri.
“He’s been a leader since the beginning,” Whitaker said. “He is very gifted and works well with people. It’s the charity in his heart.”
After every Mass, Giuliani asks people new to the area to stand and be recognized. He asks where they’re from and inevitably knows something about them or their roots, said Eleanor DiBias.
“He’s so warm, understanding and kind. Whether they’re from Ohio, New Jersey, New York or Indiana, he finds a way to make them feel welcome.”
It’s been a long road to completing the church. Seventy-nine souls gathered for the initial mass of the Fort Mill/Tega Cay Catholic Community at Lake Wylie Lutheran July 2, 1993.
Giuliani remembers that night as “a hot, hot night – 98 degrees in the shade. I thought to myself, ‘if these people come back, we’ll have a church,’” he said with a smile.
And they did.
In January 1994 Bishop Thompson accepted the church mission statements and named the community St. Philip Neri, after the founder of the Roman Oratory. As it grew, the group needed larger meeting spaces. Easter of 1995, the group moved to Philadelphia United Methodist Fellowship Hall and later to the Tega Cay Clubhouse when a second Sunday Mass was necessary to accommodate the now 227-family parish.
“The kids were up in the balcony,” remembers Giuliani, “their parents didn’t realize it, but they were dropping things from up there, trying to hit me as I said Mass.” Many of the parishioners remember wondering if the aging building’s floors and groaning walls would withstand the weight of the small group of worshippers.
The first Italian Festival, a major fundraiser for the parish, was held at the Munn Road Armory in June 1995. The following January a mortgage burning was held to celebrate that the land debt had been paid in full. By early 1996 a building fund drive was underway with three-year pledges. A groundbreaking for the Parish Center was held Sept. 1, 1997, and the first Mass there was celebrated the following Easter.
Fr. Joseph Pearce joined the community as Parochial Vicar in 1999.
“He was a wonderful priest with us for 10-plus years,” Whitaker said.
By June 2003, the parish had grown to more than 1,000 families and as they celebrated their 10th anniversary, a new Capital Campaign drive was begun for Phase I.
But all was not smooth sailing as a massive snowfall in February of 2004 caused severe damage to the roof and left the parish without the use of its parish center. The building reopened in the fall and in May of 2005 the Louis Kuchinic Ministry Building was opened. In June, St. Philip Neri celebrated the 25th anniversary of Giuliani’s ordination and the parish center was renamed in his honor.
In November 2005, a Capital Campaign was begun to raise $2 million to build a church to house the ever-growing parish, which was now 1,700 families strong. The Rev. Fabio Refosco had come and been reassigned, as had Pearce. The Rev. Edward McDevitt was newly assigned to the parish. In Feb. 2008 the church was a guiding presence for 250 Catholic members from Indian Land who attended church in Belair United Methodist Church.
The growth was mostly due to Sun City retirement community, Giuliani said.
Over the years, the church has added Deacons Jon Dwyer and Steven Rhodes and soon will add temporary Deacon Hartman. Peter Baldridge was been the chair of the building committee through all.
“We’re also blessed to have Linda Liberty as our music director,” said long-time parishioner Richard Gagnon.
Liberty also directs for Our Lady of Grace in Indian Land.
The new church was designed by WKW Architects in Charlotte, with Mike Berry at the helm. They exclusively design churches, according to Giuliani. The stained glass came from Statesville and many of the altar pieces are from Christ the King Church in Cleveland, Ohio. Forays into other areas of the country where churches are closing brought the marble holy water font from St. Cyril and Methodious outside Cleveland, Ohio.
“By the grace of God, it’s been a good run,” Giuliani said.
“The people have been continuously and consistently supportive. They have been loyal and positively behind the parish. So many are involved in the Italian Festival in many roles. People say they come here and immediately feel at home and join the church.
“We operated under the theme from the movie Field of Dreams – ‘Build it and they will come.’”
And they have.