How St. John Paul II Started a Catholic Boom in the Carolinas

Joseph Serwach

The Polish pope came to the buckle of the Bible Belt when it was the least Catholic state in America The stained glass window honoring St. John Paul the Great in St. Andrew Catholic Church in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Photo by Joseph Serwach.

FORT MILL, S.C. — St. John Paul the Great knew he had to visit South Carolina when he found out it was the least Catholic state in America.

‘’How is it to live with 98 percent non-Catholic people?’’ the first Polish pope asked Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler of Charleston, S.C., during a 1984 meeting.

Unterkoefler said it was “a great challenge.” And three years later, the University of South Carolina was added to John Paul’s 1987 tour of North America, the first papal visit to America’s Southern Baptist Bible Belt.

Just 2.1 percent of South Carolina’s 3.35 million residents were Catholic when John Paul arrived in Columbia on September 11, 1987. Thirty-four years later, South Carolina has 5.1 million residents, and a full 10 percent are Catholic.

70 times seven? Since John Paul’s 1987 visit, South Carolina’s Catholic population has grown seven-fold from 70,000 to more than 500,000. Neighboring North Carolina similarly grew from 3 percent Catholic in 1987 to 10 percent today.

1987: Two national religion-related tipping points hit South Carolina

Why the boom? Most credit the growth to the growing number of Northern and Hispanic transplants and black Americans being more religious.

Less commonly known or understood: 1987 marked twin turning points in the history of religion in the Carolinas: the John Paul visit and the PTL scandal, which occurred in Fort Mill, where the two Carolinas meet.

Jim Bakker ran a high-profile Christian ministry, including the nationally televised “PTL Club” and Heritage USA (at the time, America’s third most successful theme park) based in Fort Mill, S.C. In spring 1987, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were embroiled in a financial and sex scandal that dominated the national news for weeks. Bakker during a PTL broadcast with his wife Tammy Faye, 1986. Public domain photo by Peter K. Levy via Wikimedia Commons.

Each night, the PTL scandal was the main story on Ted Koppel’s “Nightline” show on ABC. Koppel called it “a national soap opera” where Americans “claimed to be outraged” while “clamoring for more.”

How the PTL news brought me to South Carolina

I was finishing journalism school at Michigan State University and applied to 86 newspapers in 38 states before graduating that June. Koppel regularly covered the PTL scandal saying, “Tomorrow’s Charlotte Observer will report…” So I decided to send a resume and work samples to The Charlotte Observer.

At the time, I knew little about the Carolinas (except what I’d seen on “The Andy Griffith Show” or learned studying Civil War history), so the PTL scandal really put the Carolinas on my personal map. I figured it took courage for a newspaper in Charlotte, N.C. (a city I’d never heard of at the time) to challenge the powerful PTL in the Bible Belt. I didn’t yet know Charlotte was the biggest city in the Carolinas, but I applied.

One of those Charlotte Observer editors took my resume with him when he became editor of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C. (another city I hadn’t yet heard of in 1987). He knew the “magic words,” asking: “How’d you like to work at the beach?’’ So the PTL story helped get me to South Carolina.

John Paul’s arrival in South Carolina, just six months after the PTL scandal, cast a stark contrast between religion at its worst and best: Jim/Tammy looking as unsympathetic and hypocritical as could be while John Paul hosted an ecumenical meeting showing himself as a holy man of love and truth. John Paul II at the University of South Carolina, September 11, 1987. Image courtesy of University of South Carolina Libraries.

A third of a century later, the Rock Hill/Fort Mill/Charlotte corridor where PTL once thrived is one of two areas experiencing the most dramatic growth in the Church. The other area: Beaufort, along the booming Atlantic coastline.

That same month John Paul arrived, we baptized our son at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Myrtle Beach. Today, a new stained glass window of St. John Paul stands near the baptismal font. Ironically, John Paul visited South Carolina exactly one week before he would celebrate Mass on a massive vacant lot across the street from my Grandma Helen’s house in Hamtramck, Michigan.

The Diocese of Charleston (encompassing all of South Carolina) has made its patron St. John the Baptist: “like that voice crying out in the wilderness, our laity has been called to share the message of salvation. Through God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we can be saved from meaninglessness, emptiness, and despair to experience truth, meaning and hope.”

When 30 Protestant leaders met John Paul — 100,000 joined them

When John Paul gathered with 30 Protestant leaders on what The New York Times called “unquestionably evangelical Protestant turf,’’ more than 100,000 came to join them: a crowd that was 30 percent larger than the state’s entire Catholic population at the time.

In those days, people recalled when the Ku Klux Klan attacked Catholics as much as any other minority group. It had taken 30 years for the Catholic population to grow from 35,000 to 70,000.

Bishop Unterkoefler, a Philadelphia native who became Bishop of Charleston in 1965, saw the KKK rise and fall. When the Klan organized an August 1987 rally in Charleston, the bishop organized an interfaith and interracial “service of reconciliation.’’

“They had 90 people, and we had thousands,’’ the bishop said of the Klan. Then the pope arrived.

John Paul told the faithful, “I come to this state in response to a solemn duty. Indeed is it not the duty of every follower of Christ to work for the unity of all Christians?”

“I wish to add a special word of greeting and support for the students of the University of South Carolina,’’ John Paul added. “Before you lies the wonderful world of knowledge and the immense challenge of truth. Here you can come to a much greater understanding of yourself and of the universe…

“My special hope for you is this: that you will always have a great love for truth — the truth about God, the truth about man, and the truth about the world. I pray that through truth, you will serve humanity and experience real freedom.”

Speaking at the University of South Carolina football stadium, John Paul told the crowd, “Brothers and sisters: we are divided in many ways in our faith and discipleship. But we are here together today as sons and daughters of the one Father, calling upon the one Lord Jesus Christ, in the love which the same Holy Spirit pours forth into our hearts.”

“Christian families exist to form a communion of persons in love,’’ he said. As such, the Church and the family are, each in its own way, living representations in human history of the eternal loving communion of the Three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. In fact, the family is called the Church in miniature, ‘the domestic church,’ a раrticular expression of the Church through the human experience of love and common life. Like the Church, the family ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates to other families and to the whole of society.’’

In words that are even more powerful 34 years later, John Paul stressed:

“In America and throughout the world, the family is being shaken to its roots. The consequences for individuals and society in personal and collective instability and unhappiness are incalculable…

“Тhis sense of moral accountability needs to be reawakened if society is to survive as a civilization justice and solidarity…And yet, at the same time, throughout this land there is a great stirring, an awareness of the urgent need to recapture the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values.” St. Andrew Catholic Church in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Photo by Joseph Serwach.

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