Mission Possible

Eastern North Carolina - Catholic? The Raleigh Home Mission Society could make it happen

By Rich Reece/ Photos by Denmark Photo & Video

A story for Lent, 2008:

Once upon a time, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh stretched across the entire state of North Carolina -- from Murphy to Manteo, as they say. If you knocked on the doors of people living in that Diocese, though, the chance of a Catholic answering your knock was one in 100. Even that number was high if you were traveling outside the cities. In the mountains of the west and the vast small-town farming country in the east, Catholics were a rarity, and Catholicism was suspect.

In fact, in those days, in the hills and hollers and the small farm towns, men and women actually were knocking on doors in search of Catholics, and in the hope of changing people’s minds about Catholicism. You can see them in a film made in 1959, In the Footsteps of the Tar Heel Apostle: priests and seminarians in black suits and Fedoras, Sisters in their habits, braving the heat of the summer and the chill of the natives to spread the Faith.

Those missionaries were inspired, as the title of the film implies, by the Tar Heel Apostle, Servant of God Father Thomas Frederick Price, who had roamed the state at the turn of the century, seeking converts and training a generation of his followers to do the same. They were also inspired by their Bishop, Vincent S. Waters, whose dream was uncompromising: “Every Tar Heel a Catholic!” If that call to action seems a tad triumphalistic today, there is no mistaking the conviction in the eyes of the Bishop who took as his motto Omnia per Mariam, All Things Through Mary. There’s also no mistaking the results of his efforts and those of his missionaries, in raising the Catholic profile in North Carolina: His successor, Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, would dedicate more than 50 churches throughout the state.

Why is this a story for Lent? The hallmarks of the Lenten season are prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving, and the missionary effort in North Carolina could not have borne such fruit without all three. The sacrifice came from the missionaries themselves, but much of the prayer and most of the almsgiving came from elsewhere, as Catholics all over the U.S. contributed to the “home missions,” supporting evangelization in parts of the country, like North Carolina, where the Church was little known.

Perhaps the biggest financial support for home missions came from the Catholic Church Extension Society, founded in 1905 “to sustain and extend the Catholic Faith in poor and remote mission areas of the United States where diocesan resources are insufficient.” Since 1905, Catholic Extension has distributed more than $450 million to mission dioceses to assist church building and repair, missionary salaries, seminarian education, evangelization and outreach programs, campus ministry and disaster relief.

For almost the entire century, the Diocese of Raleigh depended on Catholic Extension to fund the building of churches and chapels in areas where a Catholic presence had been established. Then the support ended. Fr. James F. Garneau, a historian, Pastor of St. Mary Church in Mt. Olive, NC, and Dean of the Newton Grove Deanery, explains:

“In 2000, the Diocese had a very successful capital campaign which was able to create endowments to fund all kinds of ministerial efforts. It was never intended to address internal missionary concerns. But Catholic Extension understandably then saw our Diocese as less needy than other missionary territories – places like Brownsville, TX, or Las Cruces, NM. So that funding was lost, along with some of the activities it used to support, particularly the building of mission churches.”

Ironically, that loss coincided with a potential missionary harvest such as Fr. Price and Bishop Waters could hardly have imagined, as the Diocese (now the eastern half of the state only) became home to hundreds of thousands of baptized Catholics from Latin America, new military families, and immigrants from Northern states. Rather suddenly, the small churches established in Catholic outposts over a century of evangelization were overflowing, and so far apart that the new faithful had difficulty reaching them.

Fr. Garneau cites St. Mary’s in Mt. Olive as an example. “The church seats 75,” he said. “We have 350 registered families, and many more unregistered.”

Faced with this need, on Thanksgiving Day last year Bishop Michael F. Burbidge initiated what is likely the next chapter in the proud story of Catholic evangelization in North Carolina, creating the Diocese of Raleigh Home Mission Society, a program designed to assist small, rural communities in the Diocese to build places of sacred worship.

The Bishop appointed Fr. Garneau, who proposed the concept of the Society, to chair an Advisory Board that will coordinate and oversee it. Among its initial tasks:

  • Define the “Mission” area of the Diocese, and define what “Mission” means in the context of the Diocese of Raleigh Mission Society.
  • Determine the amount of the need, both current and project needs.
  • Prioritize the needs and make funding recommendations.
  • Recommend funding options and processes.

Fr. Garneau contrasted the need in the rural areas with the need in the Triangle, which has also seen an influx of new Catholics, primarily from states in the Northeast. “In the Triangle, the people coming in are predominantly white collar, they own homes, and they can contribute substantially to building campaigns, so it’s considered safe to lend money to facilitate that construction. Rural immigrants are mainly blue collar; they own little, have little to contribute. At the same time, building costs are up, so the gap between what’s needed and what’s available has grown.”

“Mission territory,” Garneau says, could also refer to inner city neighborhoods, “but the immediate need is in places like Pink Hill, where a rented storefront is church for people in three counties.”

Furthermore, Fr. Garneau is convinced that celebrating the sacraments and proclaiming the Gospel require sacred space. “Catholics new to our Diocese grew up worshipping inCatholic churches,” he says, “and the look and feel of sacred surroundings are inseparable from that worship.”

Funding for the new churches and chapels will come from several sources. The Diocesan Presbyteral Council, Diocesan Finance Council and Bishop’s Annual Appeal Steering Committee recommended an increase in the 2008 Bishop’s Annual Appeal goal that includes initial funding for the Society. In addition, the Society will consider additional sources of funding, including

  • Benefactors and friends of the Diocese who have a special interest in supporting mission churches and would be able to make restricted donations to the Society.
  • A mission appeal collection in parishes that would augment any BAA funds for the construction projects and the running of the Society office.
  • Establishment of parish partnerships, where a large parish “adopts” a mission church.

Fr. Garneau is asked about a well known but uncomfortable fact of North Carolina life: a vocal anti-immigration contingent among its citizens. Will this affect the success of the initiative?

“As Catholics,” Garneau replies firmly, “we seek to bring the truth of the Gospel to the next generation regardless of their political status. They are Catholics, and they have a right to the Gospel and the sacraments. Furthermore, a great number of children are native born, and by every law and tradition are Americans. If signs of Catholic culture are not present here, there’s little hope of maintaining Catholic identity. We must serve them now.

“The dream of the Church in North Carolina for 100 years now, the dream of Fr. Price and Bishop Waters, the dream shared by Bishops Gossman and Burbidge, is a reality. In order to sustain it, we have to meet the needs.”

This new phase of mission in the Diocese of Raleigh, like the old one, will require prayer, sacrifice and almsgiving. The Home Mission Society, in a spirit of hope and resolve, is asking North Carolina Catholics for all three.

Saint Mary Church in Mount Olive, one of the parishes under consideration for a Diocese of Raleigh Home Mission Society grant.



How You Can Help

For more information about the Home Mission Society, call or e-mail Fr. James F. Garneau at 919-658-4023 or garneauj@raldioc.org. Contributions can be sent to The Diocese of Raleigh Home Mission Society, 715 Nazareth Street, Raleigh, NC 27606.