Our Diocese at 90

Proud past, vibrant future and ten things you may not know

In December 2014, the Diocese of Raleigh marked 90 years since it was established. Perhaps few other Dioceses have witnessed so much positive change in that time.

“What an incredible sign of God’s providence the 90 years since the establishment of this Diocese have been!” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. “We have come so far from the simplest missionary beginnings, when courageous priests and religious on horseback first planted the Catholic faith in North Carolina, to the modern day when not only is the Catholic population growing through Catholics coming to the Diocese from elsewhere, but the Diocese is experiencing growth through the thousands who have joined the Church through the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism Confirmation and Holy Eucharist) and Solemn Profession of Faith.  This increase causes us to build new churches, enlarge old ones and even lay the groundwork for a new Cathedral in order to accommodate the burgeoning Catholic population. 

“Surely God has blessed this Diocese, and the faithful efforts of so many laborers in the vineyard who with His grace and inspiration have established this flourishing, vibrant faith community. As we look back on our proud past and contemplate our bright future, let us give renewed thanks to the One who alone is the Source of all good.”

The journey of the Church in North Carolina, since the State was established as a Vicariate Apostolic Vicariate in 1868, through the time since the creation of the Diocese in 1924, makes a fascinating story. Here are ten details from that story which you may not know:

1. Our Diocese covered the whole state until 1971.

When the Diocese of Raleigh was created by Pope Pius XI in 1924, it covered virtually the entire state of North Carolina (with one exception – see #2). Ministering and evangelizing in this approximately 54,000 square mile area with 6,193 Catholics were 31 priests and 84 women religious. The new Diocese contained 21 parishes, 40 missions with churches and 60 stations – locations where priests visited as they could, often celebrating Mass in private homes.

In 1970, when the census showed the Catholic population at 67,000, Bishop Vincent S. Waters set in motion the process to split the Diocese in half, creating the Diocese of Charlotte. In a pastoral letter announcing the new Diocese in 1971, Bishop Waters wrote, “When the family of God grows and matures in any place, in the plan of God a new family is set up. Rejoice with me at this Good News.”

2. Belmont Abbey: an island in the Diocese

Leo Haid, OSB, was a Bishop twice over: as the first Abbot of Belmont Abbey, near Charlotte, and in 1888 as reluctant head of the Vicariate Apostolic of North Carolina. As much as possible, Bishop Haid tried to juggle the two responsibilities, visiting churches throughout the State and sending his Benedictine monks out to render priestly service. There was a natural tension, however, between the demands placed on a missionary priest and the routine of work and prayer and stability required of a monk.

In an effort to involve his order in the wider vicariate while at the same time keeping their monastic lives central, in 1891 Bishop Haid petitioned and was granted the right for the Benedictine Order to be spiritual administrators of the nine counties nearest the Abbey for the next 50 years. The jurisdictional conflicts over this arrangement would persist for longer than that, though, especially after the creation of the Diocese of Raleigh. In 1910, the Abbey and its territory was created an Abbatia Nullius – an abbey belonging to no Diocese – and although the area under its jurisdiction would gradually shrink until in 1960 it consisted only of Belmont Abbey itself, the Nullius designation was not suppressed until 1977.

3. We were almost the Diocese of Wilmington.

The secular priests of the Vicariate of North Carolina petitioned the Baltimore Province in 1910 to create a Diocese. The Bishops of the province agreed, and forwarded their recommendation to Rome. The Diocese as they envisioned it would be seated in Wilmington, and Abbot Haid would be the Bishop. But the response from the Vatican was to delay action on the request.

In 1923, the issue was revived. The thinking of Archbishop Curley of Baltimore, in his correspondence with the Pope’s Apostolic Delegate, was that the new Diocese would be established after the death of Abbot Haid and be placed in Wilmington, Asheville or Charlotte. When Bishop Haid died in July 1924, North Carolina Catholics waited until December to learn of the creation of the Diocese of Raleigh. Various reasons have been given for Raleigh’s being chosen as the episcopal see. Perhaps worth noting are its central location, its status as the State capital, and the fact that Fr. Thomas Price had established his missionary headquarters just outside that city.

4. Five Bishops who served in Raleigh went on to other Dioceses.

William J. Hafey, the first Bishop of Raleigh, was appointed Coadjutor and later Bishop of Scranton in 1937. His successor in Raleigh, Bishop Eugene J. McGuinness, became Coadjutor and later Bishop of the Diocese of Oklahoma City and Tulsa in 1944. Our Diocese also had two Auxiliary Bishops who moved on to other Sees: Bishop Charles B. McLaughlin (appointed 1964) was appointed Bishop of Saint Petersburg in 1968 and Bishop James J. Navagh (appointed 1952) became Bishop of Ogdensburg (NY) and later Bishop of Paterson (NJ). Bishop Michael F. Burbidge (appointed 2006) was appointed Bishop of Arlington in 2016.

5. The gift of consecrated religious

Since 1870, North Carolina has been served by more than 80 religious orders of women and 30 religious orders of men. They have staffed schools, hospitals and orphanages, evangelized in the field and pastored and administered parishes.

6. A saint slept here.

Katharine Drexel (1858-1955), who was canonized a saint in 2000, was a benefactor of the church in Newton Grove. She visited there in 1910. The Philadelphia heiress and nun who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament spent her entire fortune, some $20 million, on missionary work, particularly on the care and evangelization of Blacks and Native Americans.

Father James F. Garneau wrote about Mother Drexel’s generosity to the Church in North Carolina in The North Carolina Catholic newspaper in 1988, on the occasion of her beatification. Father Garneau wrote that $500 was given [among other contributions to churches in the state] to enlarge the church building in Newton Grove, so people of all races would always be welcomed there.

Mother Drexel began a correspondence with Father Michael Irwin, pastor in Newton Grove, which would last more than 20 years. In 1910, she visited Father Irwin in Newton Grove, and stayed with the religious sisters who were teaching at the schools then in existence.

7. The Patroness of our Diocese

In 1945, the year of his consecration as Bishop of Raleigh, the Most Reverend Vincent S. Waters asked Pope Pius XII to place our Diocese under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Devotion to Mary was at the heart of Bishop Waters’ spirituality throughout his life.

The Immaculate Conception was a dogma promulgated in 1854 by Pope Pius IX, in the papal bull Ineffabilis Deus (Latin for "Ineffable God"): “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.”

8. The first integrated school in NC was Catholic.

In May 1953, Bishop Waters ordered the racially separate churches and schools of Holy Redeemer Parish in Newton Grove to merge. Holy Redeemer School thus became the first integrated school in North Carolina. Neither the Blacks nor the whites embraced the change, however; the school closed shortly afterwards due to low enrollment.

9. A celebration, and a funeral

The celebration of the 50th Anniversary of our Diocese was scheduled for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1974. The speakers were scheduled, the liturgies planned and the programs printed. Three cardinals were expected, and the homilist would be the illustrious Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The ceremony was to be held in the Dorton Arena, because the Cathedral was too small for the anticipated crowd.

Then, on December 3, Bishop Waters died suddenly of a heart attack. Cardinal John Cody was the principal celebrant at his funeral Mass on December 7, and the anniversary celebration was held as planned on December 8.

10. Hispanic ministry was happening in our Diocese 40 years ago.

Msgr. Gerald L. Lewis, Diocesan Archivist, recalled, “The first ministry of the Catholic Church to the Hispanic/Latino community in our Diocese was ministry to migrants.  This ministry was going full force by 1975. Priests, religious Sisters and lay volunteers would go out to the fields where the migrants labored and the shacks where they lived. The main centers were around Smithfield, Rocky Mount and Louisburg. These beautiful, hardworking people would pass through the area and then when the harvest was done, move on to another area.

“Slowly Hispanic workers would ‘settle out’ and take jobs in the local economy. By 1978 we had a regular Sunday Mass in Spanish at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh and Saint Ann Church, Smithfield. Father Thomas Hadden and I would alternate the Sunday Mass at the Cathedral and Father Joseph Lynn, O.S.F.S, was the great missionary to the Hispanics in Smithfield.”

Watch Bishop Burbidge's 90th Anniversary Homily

90th Diocesan Anniversary Activities

Then and Now Activity: English (PDF) | Spanish (PDF)

NC Catholics November 2014 Issue Activity Sheet: English (PDF) | Spanish (PDF)

Webpage Search (PDF)

Pre-K - 1st Grade Wordsearch (PDF)

Bishops Chronology for 2nd - 4th Grades (PDF)

5th - 8th Grade Wordsearch (PDF)