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Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church: Priest who guided growth moves on

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

“Bittersweet is not a strong enough word for what I’m feeling,” the Rev. Tommy Tipton told parishioners who packed Holy Cross-Faith Memorial Episcopal Church for his sermon on Sunday.

It was his last at the church after 12 years as rector, and it drew tears from church members who said they will dearly miss him.

Tipton, who was assistant rector at Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church in Georgetown before coming to Holy Cross, is moving to Columbia to be the bishop’s assistant in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

“I’m 58 years old and I would like to explore the greater church outside the Diocese of South Carolina,” Tipton said. “The Episcopalian church has 115 dioceses and we’re just one. I think I have something to offer to the greater church.”

But the decision to leave the community he has been a part of for 40 years to pursue that goal wasn’t an easy one for Tipton, and it left him with mixed emotions as the days leading up to his final sermon approached.

“One minute I’m very excited and the next I’m sad to be leaving,” he said. “This is a great congregation and [Holy Cross-Faith Memorial ] is rich in its heritage of what it has to offer to this community. It has been a beacon of light and hope in the community.”

In addition to the church, the Holy Cross-Faith Memorial campus is also home to Baskervill Ministries, which oversees charitable endeavors including Smith Medical Clinic and St. Elizabeth Place, an independent living community for the low-income elderly.

As he opened his final sermon, Tipton recalled the first time he stepped foot on the campus 12 years ago and his surprise upon noting the signs at the entrance. Signs for the medical clinic and other outreach programs overwhelmed the church sign, an indication of the mind-set on the campus.

“Baskervill Ministries had become the primary focus,” Tipton said. And in some ways the ministry had become disconnected from the church, which was still a mission of the Diocese of South Carolina, which is based in Charleston.

While the church was filled with “good people who had been faithful to worship,” there was no sense of permanency in regard to the clergy and the people working in the church office seemed to think they owned the grounds and everything on them, according to Tipton.

“Things had gotten out of whack,” he said.

So his first duty was to re-prioritize and bring the focus back to the church. He reordered the signs on the highway and fired the staff so he could start fresh.

“When he started at this place, it was on the decline and he sort of brought it out of the ashes,” said Bill Wilson, a longtime church member. “He’s been a great leader. I have only wonderful things to say about him.”

Much has changed since Tipton’s early days at the church; so much that “it boggles the mind,” Tipton said.

The most notable change is perhaps the congregation itself.

When Tipton was appointed, Holy Cross-Faith Memorial was a predominately black church with about 40 members who worshipped in the small chapel on the campus. Perhaps a half-dozen were white.

The church grew to about 400 members, predominately white. It also became a parish and built a sanctuary.

“The church has changed the same way the community has changed,” Tipton said. But one thing that remains the same is that diversity is welcome with open arms.

“People come to this Episcopalian church because they want to be a part of a diverse community of faith and Holy Cross-Faith Memorial is that,” Tipton said. “We’re young, old, rich, poor black and white. You name it and it’s here, and that’s what this church has always been. It’s a welcoming, very inclusive place that embraces diversity and considers that a gift.”

As he said farewell, Tipton recalled baptisms, weddings and other “joyous events” he has been part of. He talked about friendship and reminded church members that Columbia is only a few hours away. He added that he leaves the church in the hands of capable staff and good leaders.

And as he closed his last sermon, Tipton issued a challenge, warning that the church has reached “a place of complacency” and “maintaining the status quo.”

“This can be a time of re-energizing, renewal and reinvigoration,” Tipton said. “Don’t allow yourselves to lose sight of what is important. Stay focused on Jesus Christ as the foundation on which all this was based.”

The care that went into planning last Sunday’s church services left no doubt that Tipton will be missed. The sanctuary was decorated with sunflowers — Tipton’s favorite flower — and the arrangements were accented with turkey feathers in honor for Tipton’s passion for hunting.

The children of the church made turkey feathers out of paper for Tipton, which they presented during the service. Each bore a message and Tipton promised to read and cherish them all.

The hymns incorporated into the service were all favorites of Tipton and the service was extended to allow each church member to receive communion from Tipton. The duty is usually split between him and the associate rector, Alex Barron.

Darlene Kallaus, a church member and winter resident of the Pawleys Island area, said she will miss receiving communion from Tipton.

“When he gives communion to you, he looks right into your eyes,” Kallaus said. “It’s very personal.”

Tipton is the main reason she attends the church, she said.

A reception after the service allowed parishioners to pay tribute to Tipton.

“We have been blessed by his leadership and caring attitude, said John Sands, who has attended the church as long as Tipton has been its rector.

Sands thanked Tipton for “inspiring” and “uniting” the congregation and invited him to visit the church often to see the changes coming years will bring.

Tipton was sent to Holy Cross-Faith Memorial at a perfect time, said Judy Ingle, the church’s senior warden. She’s confident God will call another rector to the church at the right time, she told the congregation.

The future for the church holds more potential and hope than can be contained, she said. “We are going to move forward,” she promised. “A process is in place and the parish will be kept informed every step of the way.”

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