Calculating Confession

Sullivan’s Island is the first of the barrier islands north of Charleston, South Carolina. Grimly, about 40 percent of African Americans sold into slavery in America came through the island, which held quarantine camps where they were kept before being sold. That was one reason the Irish Catholics were there. It was the poor white’s place to live.


In 1850, Sullivan’s Island had many Irish Catholics, but no Catholic church. The nearest church was across the bay in Charleston. One day the bishop of Charleston sailed across the bay to say Mass and hear confessions. The story goes that one penitent had not confessed his sins for many years. The bishop urged him to go more confession more often.

“Ah, M’Lord, I’m but a poor fisherman,” he said to the bishop. “All I have is my little rowboat, and it leaks. The water is choppy, and the weather changes fast. It’s a hard, dangerous trip to Charleston. If it’s only venial sins, it’s not worth the trouble. And if it’s a mortal sin, it’s not worth the risk.”


The story was relayed to us by the journalist Nicholas Frankovich. The cover image is taken from the  Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division.

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