Historical exhibit about Catholicism on display in western N.C.
Pictured: Yolanda Smith, a parishioner of St. Margaret Mary Church in Swannanoa and Swannanoa Valley Museum volunteer, views the museum's exhibit "Catholicism in Western North Carolina" on display in Black Mountain through the end of this month. (Beth Searles, Catholic News Herald)
BLACK MOUNTAIN — If you visit the lovely town of Black Mountain this month, you owe it to yourself to check out the travelling exhibit "Catholicism in Western North Carolina" at the Swannanoa Valley Museum.
Recognizing the 75th anniversary of St. Margaret Mary Church in Black Mountain, this small but intriguing collection of vintage photos and historical information is a surprising little treasure.
The exhibit was originally created for Asheville's St. Lawrence Basilica and its 100th anniversary in 2009, and compiled by parishioners Florence Bannon and Alice Cella from various sources including Diocese of Charlotte archives. This display at the Swannanoa Valley Museum is an abbreviated version but offers important highlights of an area that early Catholics considered a missionary territory – complete with harsh circumstances and plenty of opportunities for heroes and heroines of the faith to emerge.
You'll learn of the first Catholic family in North Carolina with a name you'll recognize – Gaston – which inspired the name for the county, the lake and the town in central North Carolina. Dr. Alexander Gaston came to the colonies in early 1760s and settled in New Bern. His son William was the first Catholic to attend Georgetown University. He became a lawyer, politician and congressman and helped establish the first Catholic church in North Carolina. In 1838 William defended the rights of free black people under the state constitution, and also persuaded delegates to change the requirement that elected officials and civil servants be Protestant, inserting "Christian" instead.
One eye-catching panel includes a vintage photo of a priest speaking to a throng of mountain families from the back of an outfitted trailer. Despite its novelty, this "Trailer Apostolate" illustrates the innovation and dedication of the Catholic effort in North Carolina, under the post-World War II leadership of Bishop Vincent S. Waters. Priests were assigned to travel the rural and mountain roads during the week and come back to their parishes on weekends. One trailer used in 1948 was dubbed "Madonna of the Highways." Roughly 35 feet long, these mobile chapels could seat 20 people, had a living area for priests that was about 11 feet by 5 feet, and a 7-square-foot reception area. These trailers were a curiosity to some and a spiritual lifeline to the few devout Catholics in remote communities.
Highlights of the exhibit also include the early development of health care in the mountain regions, thanks to religious orders like the Sisters of Mercy who tackled the needs of the poor as teachers, nurses and social workers.
The Catholic mission in North Carolina also established many schools, particularly providing the first opportunities for the education of African-Americans and women.
Interesting Catholic figures stand out in the exhibit, including Father Thomas Price, known as the "Tarheel Apostle" who is under consideration for canonization; and Father Thomas Hadden, now a monsignor, who was the first black priest to serve in North Carolina.
Claudia Graham was the task force coordinator for the anniversary celebration at St. Margaret Mary Church and for this exhibit. She sees it as an inspiration for Catholics to "not hide our lamp under a bushel basket ... and to cherish and honor our Catholic history and be vigilant about continuing to do good work."
— Beth Searles, correspondent
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