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From Haiti in a full circle of history

By Pamela Smith

There are times when we smile at the way in which things come full circle. We have a sense of poetic justice. The ordination and installation of Jacques Fabre Jeune as the 14th Roman Catholic Bishop of Charleston this May 13 was such a moment.

When the Irishman John England became bishop of the new Diocese of Charleston in 1820, it included North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. From 1832 to 1837, the diocese also included Haiti, and Bishop England was tasked with forging a Haitian agreement with the Vatican to recognize Catholicism. The faith had been suppressed in the aftermath of a slave revolt that birthed a government purportedly a republic but that devolved into a dictatorship. England exerted arduous efforts with no real success, but there is a significant by-product of his journeys back and forth from Charleston to Port-au-Prince.

Monsignor Richard Madden compiled a history of the Diocese of Charleston in the early 1960s. It included a telling appendix. In the 1830s a Vatican-appointed apostolic delegate to Haiti reported that England “ordained a colored and well educated native of the island.” The man’s name was George Paddington. There is some confusion about Paddington’s origins, because England mentioned in a letter that Paddington, who was a biracial classical scholar, could not be ordained in Charleston but joined England on a trip back from Ireland and accompanied him to Haiti. After an interlude of studies in Rome, Paddington was indeed ordained in Haiti. Later correspondence indicates that Paddington was actually from Santo Domingo and spoke Spanish, rather than French, as his native language. He served as a priest in Haiti and, after tumult on the island, is recorded to have been sent in 1840 to exercise a pastorate in “Saint Louis of the South.” What we don’t know is whether that assignment was on the island nation or in Missouri.

In Charleston, John England established schools for the religious education of slave children and a school for young men of African descent, while also cooperating with the status quo. That means that, despite papal condemnations of the slave trade (which had been iterated and reiterated for several centuries), Bishop England went the route advised by American moral theologians: accept an existing system, domestic slavery, while trying to make it more just. John England was the first American bishop to ordain a man of African descent. He opposed those who denied the full humanity of African peoples.

Now, nearly 200 years later the Diocese of Charleston, the state of South Carolina, has a Haitian-born, Brooklyn-raised bishop of African descent. He was consecrated bishop by Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the first African American cardinal, with two co-consecrators, Archbishop Gregory Hartmeyer of Atlanta (of German-American descent) and Bishop Luis Zarama of Raleigh (Hispanic-American).

Amid the exultant celebration, which included not only the classic Gregorian chant and four-part harmony of the cathedral choir but also rhythmic Latin interludes, Charleston city councilman Peter Shahid turned, beaming, and said, “I think we are seeing a new day in the church of Charleston!”

Jacques Fabre Jeune is successor to bishops who have come from Southern and mid-Atlantic states. Patrick Lynch (1857-1882), born in Ireland but raised in S.C., stood in support of the Confederacy. Two bishops were native South Carolinians, Henry Pinckney Northrop (1883-1916) and Emmet Walsh (1927-1949). Bishop Jacques, as we call him in liturgical prayer, is the first Haitian and the first man of color to serve as bishop here. He is also the only one who has been a member of a religious community, the Missionaries of Saint Charles, rather than a diocesan priest, and the only one to have on his resume a history of service to migrants, refugees and small missions in the Dominican Republic, Guantanamo (Cuba), Florida, Rome (Italy) and Georgia.

As was evident at the Mass of consecration, Bishop Jacques’ diocese includes Euro-American Hispanic, African American, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean, Indian, Pakistani and Native American Catholics. There is a sense in which the full circle promises to be a moment of grace for the church which is also catholic with a small “c” — universal.

Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., Ph.D. is the director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Diocese of Charleston and adjunct faculty in theology for Saint Leo University, educating candidates for the diaconate and lay ministers. Her most recent book is The History of the Diocese of Charleston: State of Grace (History Press, 2020).

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The Carolina Compass is designed to appeal to the faithful as well as the seeker, giving historical windows into church life and showing the hands and feet of the faithful doing good works in their communities. We shall also shine a light on worldwide persecution of Christians and how we can support the faithful. A wide variety of perspectives on faith, mission work and healing will be inside the paper. Christian correspondents come from all over the globe and up and down our coast.
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