About Our Parish

A Brief History of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

Catholicism in Edgefield District began in 1845 with Dr. John Harwood Burt.  Dr. Burt was a prominent lecturer, physician, and Baptist preacher.  After reading pamphlets on the Catholic faith, he began to research the practices and beliefs of Catholicism and came into full communion with the Catholic Church along with his family.  Dr. Burt built a country home in Clearwater, eight miles from Edgefield on the Augusta Road.  He included a large room in this house for a chapel where he could retire to pray and meditate.

Rev. John England, the first Bishop of Charleston, would occasionally send priests to Edgefield to conduct services, (The Diocese of Charleston was founded in 1849 and included Georgia and North Carolina).   Around Christmas of 1849, Father Timothy Bermingham was sent to Edgefield to say Mass on a monthly basis.   Fr. Bermingham was so impressed with the zeal of the Catholics in Edgefield, as well as their growing numbers, that he began working towards building a permanent structure.  He, along with Dr. Elbert Bland of Edgefield, began fund raising to build a Catholic Church near the Edgefield Court House.  The sum of $2,000 was raised from Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Fr. Bermingham then purchased a lot of several acres with a house for $3,000, though he had no funds (the $2,000 raised was for erection a church). He then went on a tour from Louisiana to Canada soliciting funds. He returned successful in his efforts and the church was begun. John Niernsie, who designed our State House in Columbia, drew the plans for the church; built of granite and marble with a slate roof, Gothic style with a Romanesque arch at the alter.

Fr. Bermingham bought four fine mules and a wagon to haul stone from a local quarry to the church site, as well as sand for the walls, brick for the arches and other materials.  He also opened a forge, bough bellows, anvil and tools, and had a blacksmith’s shop on the site to keep his wagon repaired, to keep drills sharp for the quarrymen, to keep chisels and points sharp for the stone masons working on the church and do other maintenance.

Fr. Bermingham appointed Mrs. Margaret McHugh in charge of the boarding house for the stone cutters and blacksmiths and teamsters who had come from all over the world.  Mrs. McHugh and her husband, Peter, moved into the house beside the church (now the Padgett Home).  Here Mrs. McHugh took charge.  She not only provided a home of arts and letters, but a sanctuary of Christian life and manners.  She superintended the kitchen and the playroom, including their dinners and their morals.  Cards and liquors never entered her salon.  Not one of them ever missed the severest rebuke if occasion demanded.  She was loved and feared.  Mrs. McHugh and her husband are buried in the cemetery behind the church.

Jeremiah Donovan, the chief stone cutter, came from Ireland.  He remained in the area after the church was completed.  His descendants are still members of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.  Pat Whalen, of St. Louis, was chief builder.  John Bland, Dr. Elbert Bland’s brother, donated all the lumber from his sawmill.

By February 2, 1858, the foundation was dug and the cornerstone laid.  Inside the cornerstone was placed a list of subscribers to the Catholic Miscellany, a copy of the Edgefield Advertiser, a silver medal of the Immaculate Conception (also known as the "Miraculous Medal" of 1830), and a Latin document by Fr. Patrick N. Lynch, administrator of the Diocese of Charleston, who officiated.

Within ten months, the church was $5,000 in debt.  Fr. Bermingham stopped all work, sold the mules and wagon, and went on a fund-raising tour in both the United States and in foreign countries soliciting aid.  Abroad he was very kindly received by the commons, the nobility, and the royalty to whom he applied. Pope Pius IX donated plaques, a sculptured head of the Virgin Mary from the Vatican, and a coral necklace that once belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Many people in the area offered mules and wagons (Fr. Bermingham had sold his) to be used in the completion of the Church.  The stones for the tower and the cross were cut in Columbia and hauled to Edgefield.  The townspeople turned out to help with the raising and placing of the stones on the tower by capstan and windlass.  The front doors, made of wide hand-planed boards put together with pegs, were hung.  At this time, the main altar and a smaller altar to the Blessed Virgin Mary were carved from seven kinds of Carrara marble imported from Italy.

The organ (choir loft) was then placed in the church.  It is one of five built by John Baker, a German craftsman residing in Charleston, South Carolina, and now one of two in existence.  It was used in the Mass of Dedication.  In 1955, it was electrified.

The bell was placed in the bell tower.  Then came the stained glass window over the altar with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Oil lamps were hung from the iron fence (later removed), and last, the iron gate was hung between hand-hewn granite shafts.  It was done.  The Church of the St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was completed.

St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was dedicated on October 21, 1860.  It was one of the first churches in America so named. The Rev. Dr. Lynch, who later became Bishop, dedicated a crowded Church and consecrated the two altars with Father Thomas Murphy, Father J. O’Connell, Father Bermingham  and Father Felix Carr.

Between 1892 and 1939, the alter in the north wing chapel was purchased from the chapel of northern home and donated to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.  On this altar is a painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that was blessed by Pope Leo XIII in 1891.

Emily Caroline Dozier was the first child to be baptized in the new church. Among the early members were Mrs. Lucy Pickens Dugas, granddaughter of Governor F. W. Pickens and her two daughters, Douschka and Lucy Francis.

When the Civil War erupted, Dr. Bland was appointed Colonel to a regiment in Hampton’s Legion. He as mortally wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga. After Dr. Bland’s death, Fr. Bermingham wrote a letter of condolence to the Bland family.  This letter still exists and is in the possession of a descendant of Dr. Bland’s. A copy of this letter hangs in the church.

Fr. Bermingham later fell and broke his leg.  He took a leave of absence and returned to Europe. At this time, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was made a mission of St. Peter’s in Columbia, South Carolina.  Fr. Bermingham died on June 4, 1872.

In July, 1955, with the arrival of Fr. Suggs as the first resident priest, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception was no longer a mission church.  Fr. Suggs lived in the house behind the church by John Rainsford through the will of his great aunt, Miss Charlton Dozier.

St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, with its timeless grandeur, its massive walls, marble altars, bell tower, and organ, was built not only for its day, but for centuries to come.  Many have said of Fr. Bermingham, “He builded better than he knew.”

We remain grateful for all who supported, and continue to support, our Roman Catholic Church!