South Carolina’s Royal House
The Basilica of Saint Peter
Kenneth B. Headley
Currently, 85 churches are designated as basilicas in the United States. But in 1918 when the written code determining what deemed a church a “basilica” took effect, it was essentially a moot point for United States Catholicism because, as Catholic Culture at the time conveyed, “… this canon was of no more than academic interest in the United States, for we then had no basilicas within our borders.”
Basilicas, after all, have always been the resplendent, awe-inspiring, architectural luminaries of Europe, right? Think the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, where St. Peter is buried and where Michelangelo was appointed architect in 1546. Or, consider the imposing Sacré-Cœur, in Paris, France, which was completed in 1914 and dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus. Anyone who has traveled abroad and ventured into a basilica or cathedral may never forget the extreme sensation of reverence that accompanies stained glass windows stretching stories from the ground, enormous statues made of marble, and naves with ceiling heights in excess of 100 feet.
South Carolina could never boast a basilica within its borders until recently. Saint Peter’s Catholic Church on the corner of Hampton and Assembly streets in Columbia is the state’s first minor basilica, a designation that was announced by the Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, Bishop of Charleston, and the Very Reverend Canon Gary S. Linsky, Rector of the Basilica of Saint Peter, at a special Mass on June 24. The 111-year-old Roman Catholic Church is now officially named “The Basilica of Saint Peter” by a decree issued from Rome, Italy, by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.
Bishop Guglielmone told those in attendance at the 11 a.m. Mass, “We are honored to now have a minor basilica in South Carolina. We hold this parish in high esteem because of its spiritual and historical significance to the Diocese of Charleston.”
Of Major Importance
Although Saint Peter’s is considered a minor basilica, the word “minor” does not lose significance in the naming process. A minor basilica designation is a major triumph. In fact, only four major basilicas exist, all in Rome, including St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston offers this explanation: “The word basilica is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘royal house.’ In the Catholic world, a basilica is a church building that has been accorded special privileges by the Pope. Minor, or lesser, basilicas are significant churches in Rome and elsewhere in the world that meet certain criteria and are given special ecclesiastical privileges. Minor basilicas are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, and significance as centers of worship. A basilica must ‘stand out as a center of active and pastoral liturgy,’ according to the 1989 Vatican document Domus ecclesiae.”
Currently, 34 states have churches designated as minor basilicas. South Carolina is the newest to possess such an honor. The Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Our Lady of Victory National Shrine and Basilica in Lackawanna, New York, were the earliest U.S. structures, both designated in 1926.
“We are humbled the Holy See has honored Saint Peter’s with the designation of minor basilica. This action acknowledges the parish’s historic beauty, devoutly celebrated liturgies, and growing vitality,” says Father Linsky.
He expresses amazement at many factors surrounding the importance of the designation, including that the word “basilica” in relation to Saint Peter’s has already been added to Google Maps.
“As the only basilica church in the state and the oldest parish outside of Charleston, I expect Saint Peter’s may become a place of pilgrimage and one of the historical sites people seek to visit when coming to Columbia. To this end, we’re working to design handouts for visitors and will train docents to guide tours of the basilica. We will also assist outside groups who may seek special Masses beyond our already busy liturgical schedule.”
The designation is especially meaningful considering Father Linsky lived in Rome for three years when studying theology and canon law at Pontifical Gregorian University. He prayed in the four major Roman Basilicas and others throughout Italy as well as in other parts of the world, such as Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, and the Cathedral Basilica of Notre Dame in Ottawa, Canada.
“While serving as an Air Force chaplain, I had the rare honor of being named the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Evangelist in Izmir, Turkey, which was the historic Church of Smyrna reflected upon positively in the Book of Revelation. Each is unique; but sadly, not all are still living and vibrant faith communities.”
Father Linsky views the basilica designation as a plus for not only Saint Peter’s but for downtown Columbia, for area history, and, perhaps most importantly, for the spiritual condition of the modern church. He says, “Given the challenges many churches face in the current age and the fact that many mainline Protestant denominations are seeing great decline, maintaining and expanding the vibrancy of parish faith and life in a downtown, urban, parish is a huge challenge. I am very much aware that the designation as minor basilica is accompanied by a profound duty to the Catholic faithful who seek inspiration and hope when they enter our noble edifice.”
With an infusion in the early 1800s of affordable Irish laborers to dig the canals in Columbia, a need arose for a Catholic church. An Irish-born priest, Father James Wallace, was sent to Columbia to minister to Catholics.
According to A History of St. Peter’s Church, Pope Pius VII in 1820 mandated that the Diocese of Charleston comprise the Carolinas and Georgia. At the time, about 200 communicants were in South Carolina. Regardless, South Carolina architect Robert Mills was tasked with designing the Catholic church for Columbia, and it was dedicated to St. Peter, a disciple of Christ.
Parish members began building their church in 1824. When completed, for its time, the architecture was impressive, with a general spire, a few pinnacles, and wide nave. Around the same time of construction, the church was legally chartered as the Vestry of the Roman Catholic Church of Columbia. The pastor, Father Joseph Stokes, had to travel by horseback to the other churches within the diocese.
In February 1865, the church served as a refuge for nuns and their students from the Ursuline Convent and school, which were burned by Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops. “They spent a harrowing night behind the church in the parish graveyard,” says Father Linsky. “Thankfully, the church was spared on what was an otherwise awful night for the city of Columbia.”
By the turn of the century, the original Robert Mills-designed church building showed signs of decay. Another well-known architect, Frank Milburn, was employed to design a new, larger church on the same site. In 1908, costing a little more than $60,000, the completed Saint Peter’s Church included three marble altars, a baptismal font, figured and stained glass windows from the Munich and Tiffany studios, stations of the cross, oak pews, confessionals, and a centerpiece Kilgen pipe organ. The current church has elaborate arches; a 2,784-square-foot nave; a 1,440-square-foot sanctuary; and a spire towering at 163 feet. Since the early 1900s, items have been updated or replaced, including a newer 26-rank Wicks organ installed in 1964 and an ornamental altar screen of steel, brass, and copper made by Columbia sculptor Stavros Chrysostomides and erected in 1985.
Perhaps the most “extraordinary event” in Saint Peter’s history, as described in its history book, was the visit of Pope John Paul II on Sept. 11, 1987. After visiting the church, he held a “Service for Christian Witness” at Williams-Brice Stadium where 60,000 attended.
Despite Saint Peter’s having survived to modernity, Father Linsky points out that much has and will stay the same — even with the addition of a “royal house” title to its original name.
He says, “The mission of the parish of Saint Peter’s has not changed by this designation — but perhaps, grown. Our mission is to lead souls in our area of responsibility to a deeper relationship and faith in Christ. That we worship in a building now called a basilica means we have a great responsibility to live our faith in Christ so that others may see him in us when they visit here. The title basilica is much like the title of monsignor — it is honorific but doesn’t change the fact that a monsignor is still a parish priest. We hope to live up to the title granted to our church and to ensure the honor bestowed is always deserved.”