History of Catholics in the Carolinas
A Church with a missionary spirit. That describes the Catholic Church in North Carolina throughout its history.
The Diocese of Charlotte may have 92 parishes and missions now – many of them bursting with increasing numbers of families moving here from all over the world – but there was a time when Catholic families were isolated and often treated with hostility by their non-Catholic neighbors, when the celebration of Mass was rare, when just a handful of priests "rode the circuit" hundreds of miles through the wilderness to reach their flocks.
"A History of the Early Years of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte" recounts, "Before the American Revolution, Catholicism scarcely existed in the Carolinas, except for a few exiled Acadians who were still here at the beginning of the Revolution. In his 'History of the Catholic Church in the United States,' John Gilmary Shea tells that in 1775 two Irish Catholics were discovered in Charleston and at once were condemned to be tarred and feathered and banished from the state, accused of conspiring with the Negroes against the liberties of the country. Catholics kept their faith so secret that they were not even known to one another. After the American Revolution a new era began for the government and also for religion. The State of South Carolina in its new constitution permitted Catholics to live in the state as individuals and as organized groups."
The first wave of Catholics in the Carolinas arrived in the early 1800s – mostly Irish stonemasons and other skilled tradesmen finding work with the railroads and in construction jobs, especially in Raleigh, which saw the dedication of its first Catholic church in 1834.
Until just after the nation's founding, Catholics in the Carolinas were part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Just a few years after the American Revolution, however, the Baltimore archdiocese realized it was too distant to oversee the Carolinas effectively. So in 1820, the Holy See created a new Diocese of Charleston, comprising the Carolinas and Georgia. Thirty years later, when Georgia was split off into a separate Diocese of Savannah, the Carolinas combined had about 5,000 Catholics, 17 churches and just 16 priests.
No history of the early Church in North Carolina can be told without describing the foundational role of the Benedictines.
During his tour of the state in the late 1860s, Bishop Gibbons realized that religious education was critical to shepherding the faithful. At the urging of his priest traveling companion, he wrote "The Faith of Our Fathers," which became a popular religious text in its day. He also anticipated that the state's Catholics needed a religious college to educate the faithful and encourage vocations. But where?
Jeremiah J. O'Connell, a trailblazing priest and missionary who worked throughout the Carolinas and Georgia, bought 500 acres of farmland near what today is Belmont. It was a bankruptcy sale, and he paid just $10. He envisioned a Catholic college for young men run by a religious order.Around the same time, Rev. Dr.
Rev. Dr. O'Connell was no stranger to this area. In 1851, he had traveled two days by stagecoach from Charleston to lay the cornerstone of St. Peter's in Charlotte. "Much of the money needed to construct this church was donated by non-Catholics who had been impressed by Father O'Connell's preaching," states the history on the Diocese of Charlotte's website.
Rev. Dr. O'Connell approached Bishop Gibbons with his idea for using the land in Belmont, and not long afterward the bishop petitioned St. Vincent's Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., to form a community of Benedictine monks and a college there. All Rev. Dr. O'Connell asked was to live on the campus, which he did until his death in 1894. While living at the abbey, he penned the seminal work "Catholicity in the Carolinas and Georgia: Leaves of its History."
In 1876, the first Benedictines arrived: Father Herman Wolfe and two students from Richmond, Va. A religious brother and two more students from Charlotte soon joined. Besides their religious studies and missionary work, the monks made the bricks used to build the abbey.
Within two years there were 12 students and four faculty, and the college was chartered by the state in 1886 as St. Mary's College. (In 1913 its name changed to Belmont Abbey College.)
Father Leo Haid was elected as the first abbot of the growing community in 1885, which by then included 12 monks. He was soon ordained a bishop, and in 1887 he became responsible for the North Carolina vicariate as well as the abbey for the next two decades.
The Benedictine monks had a pioneering spirit and unwavering missionary zeal. Under Abbot Haid's leadership the community grew to dozens of monks. In cooperation with the Sisters of Mercy, they established parishes and parochial schools across the state, girls' boarding schools in Belmont and Asheville, and three hospitals. They also founded and staffed new monasteries and schools in Georgia, Virginia and Florida.
At the time Abbot Haid was ordained head of the North Carolina vicariate in 1887, there were 2,600 Catholics and 14 priests in the state. When he died in 1924 – serving as North Carolina's last vicar apostolic – the Catholic population had grown to 8,254 people and 52 priests.
That same year, the North Carolina vicariate became a diocese in its own right when the Diocese of Raleigh was created by Pope Pius XI. It encompassed the entire state except eight counties set aside for Belmont Abbey's control, a separate diocesan structure called "abbatia nullius." The abbey was the only one in the U.S. to ever hold that rank, from 1910 until the formation of the Diocese of Charlotte. (The abbey's Basilica of
Mary Help of Christians, funded in large part by a donation from St. Katharine Drexel, was a cathedral for much of the 20th century while the abbey enjoyed "abbatia nullius" status, and it is now a minor basilica.)
One year after the Raleigh diocese's founding, Bishop William Joseph Hafey, chancellor of the Baltimore archdiocese, was ordained its first bishop. At 37, he was the youngest bishop in the U.S. at the time.
Sources: "A History of the Early Years of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte," by Sister Miriam Miller, O.S.F., 1984; "Voices and Places of the People of God," by David Hains, 2006; Diocese of Charlotte website and archives.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Diocese of Charlotte was founded on Jan. 12, 1972. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the diocese and the history of the Church in Western North Carolina, we are launching a year-long series spotlighting the people who built up the Church, the major developments over the past 40 years, and what changes could be in store for the future.
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