By Peg Eastman

Rick Belser, the much-loved former rector of St. Michael’s Church, recently celebrated his 75th birthday. To commemorate the occasion, the church gave a party that was attended by numerous friends and a veritable who’s who of Anglican clergy. Among them, Al Zadig, current rector of St. Michael’s, the Right Reverend Mark Lawrence, bishop of the diocese, Bishop-in-Residence Alex Dickson, Canon Doug Peterson, Deacon Ron Warfield and the Reverend Marshall Huey, who entered the ministry under the sponsorship of St. Michael’s Church. The women of the church prepared a banquet of culinary delights and attendees made many congratulatory remarks. It was wonderful tribute to St. Michael’s rector of 21 years. After the party, Rick agreed to reminisce with Mercury readers about his travels through life.

The Belser family is from Columbia. His fraternal grandfather, Irvine Belser, set academic and athletic records at the University of South Carolina and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He later married the daughter of the state governor. He was a dynamic individual who was known for riding a horse from his suburban home to his office on Main Street. He had high standards and expected his children to achieve academically. Rick’s aunt Harriot was the only sibling who did not graduate Phi Beta Kappa. According to family tradition, they lovingly called her “BaBa,” the family “black sheep.” Some years later Rick wrote Son and Heir, a fictionalized story based on his grandfather’s remarkable life.

Rick’s father, Irvine Belser, Jr., was equally memorable. While attending Yale University, he met his future wife who was summering at the Isle of Palms in 1936. Captivated by her charms, he visited her Staten Island home on many occasions afterwards. His courtship in Carolina, however, was unique. On one occasion, he rented a plane, landed it on the Isle of Palms Beach and took his “Yankee” girlfriend for a spin over the city of Charleston. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, his father entered Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, it was when Europe was heading for another war; his father joined the army when America entered the great conflict.

Rick’s father was married by then and soon stationed in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The couple had a child on the way when his father was later placed on temporary duty in Florida. One day he received a telegram that Rick’s arrival was imminent and managed to hitch a ride on a bomber searching for German U-boats in the Atlantic. He arrived at the hospital shortly before the baby’s birth. The next day, the local newspaper’s headline read: “Lieutenant Beats Stork by Thirteen Minutes.”

It was not long before his father was sent overseas, where he served in the North Africa, Sicily and Italian campaigns. His mother moved to be with family in St. Augustine and she began a nightly ritual of bedtime prayers and Bible stories, a habit that would continue throughout the rest of Rick’s life.

After the war, his father moved the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts and resumed his studies at Harvard. He graduated from law school the same time that Rick graduated from the university’s kindergarten for five-year olds. The young family moved to Columbia where Irvine, Jr., joined his father’s prestigious law firm. But duty called and his father was recalled to active duty and the family moved once again, this time to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. There was more upheaval when Irvine Belser, Jr., was sent to Korea and the growing family moved back to Columbia. Again, nightly prayers were part of the Belser family traditions and young Rick did all the things expected of an Episcopal youth — Sunday School, junior choir, acolyte, youth group, Cub Scouts and more.

He does not remember when his parents ceased their nightly prayers with him, but the pattern had been set and he kept on praying every night and eventually came to realize that God was the most important reality in his life. He attended Washington and Lee University, where a great-grandfather had been a student when Robert E. Lee was president. He was the only member of his fraternity who attended church and, in spite of that distinction, was elected one of their officers. As graduation approached, he began to wonder what he wanted to do with the rest of his life and began to wonder if God might be calling him into the ministry. He discussed this with some influential Episcopal clergy and the consensus was to defer his decision until after he completed his military obligations, as the draft was still in effect at that time and Vietnam was escalating.

As a second lieutenant, Rick was assigned to Ft. Jackson, about two miles away from his boyhood home in Columbia. At the reception station his duties included a daily speech to newly inducted soldiers, a task that greatly improved his oratorical skills.

When Rick finished with his military obligations, he married and applied to Virginia Theological Seminary. He had been accepted at a time when theological differences regarding the importance of Holy Scripture and that of political activism had surfaced. Rick was of the former opinion and spent countless hours discussing these issues with his fellow students and FitzSimons Allison (later bishop of South Carolina) and John Rogers, among others.

During the summer before seminary graduation, Rick worked with the Reverend Bill Lumpkin, rector of the Church of Our Savior of Rock Hill. He was assigned to minister to the nearby mill village that summer and knocked at more than 300 doors as an evangelist. When one Fort Mill resident was asked what she knew about the Episcopal Church, she replied, “Isn’t that the private club over on White Street?”

After Rick graduated from seminary, he was assigned to organize the congregation of St. Paul’s Chapel in Fort Mill as a mission of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. He was elected as a trustee of the diocese where he organized the Diocesan Christian Education Conference. After several years in solo ministry, he received a call to be an assistant to John Barr, rector of St. John’s Shandon, in Columbia. Under his tutelage he had the opportunity to learn about parish life and developed materials for a summer Sunday school course for all ages.

Later, in an answer to many years of prayer, he was called to become rector of St. John’s Church on Johns Island.

In next month’s follow-up, Rick will relate his Lowcountry ministry and his mission work after retirement. The action-filled times spent in the hotbed of Arab Spring will be included.

 

The author’s widowed mother became friends with Irvine Belser during their golden years. Through them, she acquired an inspirational piece of South Carolina. This article is written to honor both the living and the dead, following the Biblical injunction, “honor thy father and thy mother.”

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