The history of Black Catholicism in the area predates the creation of the diocese itself, going back to the 18th century, when enslaved people and refugees from Haiti came to the area. Bishop John England arrived in 1820 and assigned a priest to minister to the plantations and build churches to minister to the many Black Catholics. After the Civil War, Bishop Patrick Lynch established St. Peter's Church as the first parish for the newly emancipated. Later on, during the era of segregation, Bishop Paul Hallahan decreed that diocesan schools would accept students of all races.
Today, the diocese includes about 4,000 Black Catholics as of the latest parish census, Merritt said.
“Our new bishop has put a spark in not just Black Catholics and other minorities but almost everyone,” Merritt said.
“Having a Black bishop may result in more vocations within the Black community because our Black youth will now see and associate with a shepherd that looks like them.”
Still, she said, the numbers of Black Catholics in the diocese has dropped since the 1980s with the closing of parishes, schools, and difficulties associated with 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. But there are at least five predominantly Black parishes open in the diocese today, she said.
Fabre-Jeune’s appointment was made public Feb. 22. He succeeds Bishop Emeritus Robert Guglielmone, who retired upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75.
The Catholic Diocese of Charleston was established in 1820 and covers the state of South Carolina. More than 5 million people live within the diocese, an estimated 10% of whom are Catholic.
When the news of Fabre-Jeune’s appointment as bishop reached his siblings, all of whom now live in the U.S., he said they all thought about how their mother — who has since died, along with their father — would have been overjoyed by the news.
Fabre-Jeune said he has received a warm and gracious welcome so far in Charleston, which he said reminds him of Haiti in certain ways, especially the palm trees, a famous symbol of South Carolina. Fabre-Jeune chose a palm tree as an image for his episcopal coat of arms.
"I love people and feel that I've been loved, and I hope it will be the same" in Charleston, he said.
Fabre-Jeune will be consecrated and installed as Charleston’s bishop on May 13.
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