Setting a foundation: Monsignor Joseph Showfety, first chancellor of the Diocese of Charlotte
GREENSBORO — Monsignor Joseph Showfety has seen a lot of changes in the Diocese of Charlotte over the years.
A Greensboro native, Monsignor Showfety is one of the first native priests in the diocese and served for seven years as its first chancellor.
Throughout all of the past 40 years, he says, the Holy Spirit has been at work: made evident in the missionary spirit of the clergy and in the enthusiasm and cooperation among the faithful.
And he has lots of stories to tell.
Like the time he and Bishop Michael Begley, the diocese's first bishop, got food poisoning and landed in the hospital after returning from confirmation at a parish.
Monsignor Showfety was a priest of the new diocese at its inception in January 1972, and one of the first to learn in late 1971 when Raleigh Bishop Vincent Waters told Monsignor Michael Begley that he had petitioned Rome to divide his diocese of 60,000 Catholics and create the Diocese of Charlotte.
The story goes like this: Just before Thanksgiving 1971, Raleigh Bishop Waters visited Monsignor Begley in Greensboro, where he was pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church. Under the guise of looking for property in Greensboro for future parish use, Bishop Waters took the pastor with him. The Raleigh diocese already owned property nearby to relocate Notre Dame High School. Bishop Waters drove onto the property, stopped his car and said to Monsignor Begley, "Rome has decided to have a second diocese in Charlotte with you as the first bishop. Will you accept?" The answer was yes. Bishop Waters restarted his car without saying another word.
At the time of the division, Charlotte had 34,000 Catholics. And none of them – priest or laypeople – had any idea of the impending news. The Friday after Thanksgiving, just days after his car ride with Bishop Waters, Monsignor Begley traveled to Washington, D.C., to see the apostolic delegate. The following Tuesday, the big news was announced.
So how did Monsignor Showfety become the first chancellor?
He recalls that there had been a freak snowstorm in Hendersonville, where he served as pastor at Immaculate Conception Church. He had just come back to the rectory from shoveling a path to the church through the 15 inches of snow. It was a First Friday, Dec. 3, 1971, and he had to prepare to celebrate 11 a.m. Mass. The phone rang.
"It was Bishop-elect Begley calling. I congratulated him and our conversation continued. He said, 'I want you to be chancellor.' My reply was, 'I want to build a new church in Hendersonville.' He replied, 'I know you do. It'll be built, but not by you. I want you in Charlotte.'"
'EVERYTHING FIT IN PLACE'
For the next few weeks, Monsignor Showfety traveled back and forth several times to Raleigh and worked with the chancellor there, Monsignor Louis Morton, on arrangements for setting up the new diocese. It was the holiday season, but he had only six weeks to set everything up. The date for Bishop Begley's ordination had been set for Jan. 12, 1972, at St. Patrick Cathedral, which was being elevated from its status as a parish church.
Titles for all parish properties and all diocesan vehicles had to be transferred from Bishop Waters to Bishop Begley. It was quite a lot to do for the six men involved: two bishops, two chancellors, and two attorneys. Monsignor Showfety spent three days just transferring car titles at the state Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh.
"Everything was in Bishop Begley's name as Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte and his successors in office," making the bishop "one of the largest landholders in the state," he notes.
That excitement and rapid pace set the tone for the new diocese and Monsignor Showfety's role as chancellor, but, he adds, "everything fit in place."
He recalls that from the beginning, Bishop Waters strove to divide the dioceses' assets equally and with fairness to everyone involved. It was a critical leadership decision that placed both dioceses on good working terms from the start – something not always seen in other dioceses.
Clergy throughout North Carolina were "frozen" in place through the 1971-'72 split, and all property and funds where possible were divided equally.
"I can't say enough about Bishop Waters. He was a man who worked and worked and worked – extremely hard – and he traveled this diocese for almost 30 years, east to west. He knew the priests, he knew the parishes."
"On many occasions, Monsignor Morton said, Bishop Waters was being better to the Diocese of Charlotte than to his own diocese. It cannot be repeated enough how good Bishop Waters was to the Diocese of Charlotte. And after the division was completed, he never in any way interfered with the new diocese. He was just happy and satisfied that the process was so complete and quick," he said.
An example: Monsignor Showfety recalls that Bishop Waters was always seeking men interested in studying for the priesthood.
"There were three men who belonged to the Raleigh diocese since they had already received the rite of tonsure. However, Bishop Waters freely gave the three a choice: Raleigh or Charlotte. Of the three, Father Wilbur Thomas, whose hometown was Lexington, chose Charlotte. (Father Thomas is now pastor at St. Lawrence Basilica in Asheville.) The other two chose to remain in Raleigh.
Work to create the new diocese and split all of its assets in half was finished in six months, Monsignor Showfety says: "In six months we were finished, and not a cross word was spoken.
"It was so fairly done, you couldn't improve on it."
'OPEN FOR BUSINESS'
A temporary office was set up for the new bishop and the chancellor in a couple of rooms of the rectory at St. Patrick Cathedral by its pastor, Father Richard Allen.
On Jan. 12, 1972, Bishop Begley was ordained, and that night Bishop Waters and Bishop Begley hosted a large dinner at a downtown Charlotte hotel to celebrate.
The next morning, Monsignor Showfety says, "we were open for business."
Neither Bishop Begley nor Monsignor Showfety – then Father Showfety – had any experience for their new jobs, he recalls with a laugh. They had been parish priests and run schools, and Bishop Begley had led Raleigh's Catholic Charities office, but neither had worked in a chancery.
"You grew into the job by doing the work," he recalls. "You were involved in everything."
The people of the newborn diocese were supportive, he says, and "the priests were extremely, extremely cooperative and helpful." Particularly Father Allen at the cathedral, Monsignor Showfety says, who "was always extremely helpful in every way."
That unity made all the difference.
The same month that Bishop Begley was ordained, real estate friends of his in Charlotte located a home for sale a block from the cathedral.
"It was a beautiful home," but it needed a little work. Within days, Bishop Begley bought it for $82,500, he recalls. Friends from High Point renovated the house and set up a chapel, as well as furnished and decorated it.
When the house was ready, Bishop Begley, Monsignor Showfety and Benedictine Father Joseph Tobin moved in. A few months later, a religious sister whom the bishop knew volunteered to be housekeeper.
"Sister Mary Aquinas Makin, a Sister of St. Francis from Tiffon, Ohio, was a godsend and remained with Bishop Begley until he retired in 1984," Monsignor Showfety says, and she worked for a time with Bishop Donoghue.
She was always accompanied by her little dachshund "Me-Own." (Because she could not own anything, the dog was its own owner, Monsignor Showfety explains with a smile.)
Bishop Begley spent a lot of time traveling, particularly for confirmations, and Monsignor Showfety accompanied him to as his master of ceremonies. Monsignor Showfety also remained busy with the new work of the diocese as well as filling in at parishes wherever needed.
The new diocese set up a new fiscal calendar and accounting system, issued its first financial report 18 months after the diocese's creation, and looked for office property so they could move out of a small house on St. Patrick's campus that served as the chancery.
In 1974, the diocese purchased and renovated an office building on Morehead Street in downtown Charlotte – its first consolidated office space.
According to "A History of the Early Years of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte" by Sister Miriam Miller, O.S.F., "When the Diocese of Charlotte was set up, it received half of the cash owned by the Diocese of Raleigh at the time of the separation, so that the diocese began without great money problems. In 1974 it was agreed to sell the property used by Asheville Catholic High School and the adjoining Mount Mary property to the Asheville-Buncombe Technical Institute. Later, in 1979, the Institute also purchased the former St. John Vianney Minor Seminary building, also in Asheville. The Asheville parishes were repaid the money they had spent in purchasing the high school, and the balance was used in obtaining a new diocesan office building."
Monsignor Showfety also formed the first diocesan finance council, consisting of lay professionals from around the diocese, and negotiated health insurance coverage for clergy and staff. A process for reviewing building projects and large capital expenditures was also put into place, to ensure that the parishes and the diocese would not take on more debt than they could afford.
'ANYTIME THE PHONE RANG, IT COULD BE ANYTHING'
The work of the new diocese occupied much of Monsignor Showfety's time, even as he continued filling in at parishes and for the first six months in the post, commuting from Concord where he served as interim pastor.
He recalls that there were many surprises, some good, some bad. "Anytime the phone rang, it could be anything."
One particular tragedy sticks in his mind. He and Bishop Begley were at the residence one evening in June of 1974. "The phone rang, and I picked it up and said hello. The man said, 'I just want to let you know that Father Donahue's been murdered.' I said, 'What did you say?' 'Father Donahue's been murdered.'"
Father Francis Donahue, S.T., beloved pastor of St. John Baptist de La Salle Church in Wilkesboro for two years, had been found dead. The small parish worshipped in a large house that served as the church as well as the rectory. Monsignor Showfety explains that there had been a robbery, and Father Donahue had been tied up to his bed by the intruder. The priest hadn't been murdered, but he suffered a heart attack, police assumed, while attempting to free himself. Police soon caught the wanted man, who had fled from Ohio where he had killed a man.
Monsignor Showfety recalls that a bank headquartered at the time in North Wilkesboro lent a plane to Bishop Begley so he and a large number of priests could fly to Alabama for the funeral Mass.
PROUD OF THE DIOCESE'S GROWTH
One of the last projects Monsignor Showfety was involved in as chancellor was renovation of St. Patrick Cathedral in 1979, to accommodate the changes of Vatican II.
Some earlier plans had included a proposal to replace the pews with folding chairs and the altar with a portable altar that could be moved to different places in the church, but that proposal was rejected. Monsignor Showfety hired Francis Gibbons of Baltimore, who was known for church renovations and also later did work at St. Leo Church in Winston-Salem.
The marble altar was reworked, a new pipe organ were installed, and the ceiling was redesigned. Over the nave, a blue and silver ceiling was painted depicting crowns with a cross along with wheat and grapes, symbols for the Eucharist. The design comes from the diocesan coat of arms and serves as a reminder of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg, for whom the city of Charlotte was named.
Besides all of the other firsts that Monsignor Showfety was a part of, he was also the first of four monsignors appointed by the new diocese in 1976. (The three others were Monsignors William Pharr, Richard Allen and Michael O'Keefe.)
It was meant to be a surprise, but that day – as on most days – he was the one to open the mail. He couldn't help but see the confirmation letter from Rome, he recalls with a laugh, and he had to feign surprise when Bishop Begley made the announcement that afternoon.
Of all the changes over the years, Monsignor Showfety is proud of how the diocese has grown and flourished, and he applauds the growing participation of the laity and an emphasis on stewardship.
He notes, "It was the biggest honor and privilege of my priesthood" to serve as the diocese's first chancellor.
— Patricia L. Guilfoyle, editor
The Office of Chancellor
In an interview for the North Carolina Catholic on July 15, 1979, Monsignor Joseph S. Showfety, first chancellor of the Diocese of Charlotte, gave his reflections on the beginning of the diocese:
"The chancellor is involved in the day to day administrative work of the diocese, so that the bishop, overall superior, need not be engaged in lesser operations. To the chancellor belongs the responsibility of parishes and their financial situations; insurance covering diocesan interests; protection of the diocese in legal matters; the acquisition and sale of diocesan properties, and other business interests. The chancellor deals with the legal and administrative concerns of the diocese, but as the representative of the bishop his chief concern is pastoral and spiritual because of the nature of the Church."
— "A History of the Early Years of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte," by Sister Miriam Miller, O.S.F.
Chancellors of the Diocese of Charlotte
1972-1979 Monsignor Joseph Showfety
1979-1986 Monsignor Joseph Kerin
1986-1994 Monsignor John McSweeney
1994- Monsignor Mauricio West
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