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A Personal Journey

The following is part one of a five-part series written by Father William L. Pitts that was published in the NC Catholic newspaper several years ago, following a trip Father Pitts took from North Carolina to Maryknoll in New York to China, following in the footsteps of the Tarheel Apostle. At the time of the article, Father Pitts, who currently is pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinehurst, was the Diocesan Director for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith.

A TALE OF TWO RIVERS

Looking out the window of my room at the Sisters of St. Ursula Spiritual Center in Rhinebeck, New York, I could see a smooth and silky stretch of the Hudson River, and, from two days of river-watching from atop a grassy knoll beyond the center, I knew that behind a grove of trees to my right the river bends and continues to flow in a southerly direction to another knoll about seventy miles south and dedicated to Mary.

As the Director of The Society For the Propagation Of The Faith in the Diocese of Raleigh, roughly the eastern half of North Carolina, I had come to this Mary's knoll several days before to visit the tomb of Father Thomas F. Price, and to stay with the spiritual descendants of a group of missionaries he and Father James A. Walsh founded on June 29, 1911, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. The Fathers and Brothers of Maryknoll and I share in Father Price a common ancestor because the priest Maryknollers call their ‘co-founder’ and the priest that Catholics from North Carolina call the 'Tar Heel Apostle' are one and the same.

Several years ago, I, too, lived alongside a river, namely the Cape Fear, and it was on this southern river that the co-founder of Maryknoll as well as the first native of North Carolinian to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest sailed away to Seminary in Ellicott City, Maryland way back in the last century. Close by that same river, the State of North Carolina has erected a Historic Highway Marker in memory of Father Price.

Even after living in the birthplace of Father Price, and even after having seen that marker in downtown Wilmington with Maryknoll Father Francis Higdon when he came to town for a visit, I was not prepared for the surprise and joy of seeing the town’s name atop the tomb of Father Price in the crypt of the Maryknoll chapel, along with the date of his birth, August 19, 1860. What Father Price and soon-to-be Bishop Walsh began on that summer day in 1911 continues to live on in the lives of their direct-line spiritual descendants, the Fathers and Brothers and Sisters of Maryknoll. Those of us presently living in the Diocese of Raleigh, still a mission church in many ways, continue our evangelical efforts exactly where Father Price began his.

During my too-brief visit to Maryknoll while listening to the Fathers and Brothers talk about where they have been and where they are going I know that today's Maryknoll missionaries, just like Father Price, have left their hometowns to find other homes and towns beside rivers now, too, like the Hudson and Cape Fear, awash with memories of Maryknoll.

Watching the flow of the Hudson wander past Rhinebeck NY, I never imagined that within the next year I would visit China to follow in the footsteps of Father Price who was sent there in 1918, and who died there one year later. We, along with our spiritual brothers and sisters of Maryknoll who serve in the foreign missions, share in the legacy of their co-founder. We look for the footprints of The Tarheel Apostle in his hometown of Wilmington, and even as well, in the mountains of North Carolina. We know they are able to be found along the Cape Fear, as surely as they can be found along the Hudson. What we don’t know is that they are still visible, however faint, alongside other rivers halfway around the world...the rivers of China.

Above: "Little Maryknoll" plaque that Bishop Vincent Waters placed on brick column of his residence near Nazareth community.

Below: The home now serves as the Doggette Campus Ministry Center for North Carolina State University.