Parishes throughout the diocese will open their doors Sunday, Oct. 21, to visitors from all over the world.
It’s part of World Mission Sunday, an initiative instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1926 to recognize the importance of evangelization for every Catholic. On this Sunday, missionaries speak to local parishes during Mass, and second collections may be held to support their work.
When welcoming speakers from every corner of the globe, it’s tempting to think that mission work is only done in foreign lands. However, as recently as 1975, the state of North Carolina was considered mission territory, which refers to an area in which the Church isn’t yet firmly established and needs outside assistance.
From 1775, when the first Catholic family was documented in North Carolina, through the next two centuries, priests, sisters and lay Catholics employed incredible dedication and innovation to evangelize throughout the Tar Heel state.
The Steel Apostle
On Christmas Day, 1929, the front page of New York City’s Variety newspaper declared, “Catholic Chapel Car Travels, With Priests.” In a newspaper known for reporting on theater and vaudeville, the article reported that the train was traveling in the Carolinas and that, “Billing and publicity precede its arrival. Credit to the show business is admitted.”
The train, dubbed the St. Peter, was originally operated by Catholic Extension Services out of Chicago. At the time it was built, it was one of the longest railroad cars in the world and was refitted to include an altar and pew-like seats. The train earned the nickname the Steel Apostle as it traveled throughout North Carolina bringing sacraments and information about Catholicism to the most remote areas in the state.
In 1933, the Catholic Extension Service, no longer able to maintain the cost of the train cars, turned over the St. Peter to the Diocese of Raleigh. Bishop William Joseph Hafey, the first bishop of Raleigh, seized that opportunity to take the Steel Apostle north in an effort to educate the northeastern Catholics about the mission work being done and to raise money, not only for operation of the rail car, but also to help support and build churches for a slowly growing Carolina Catholic population.
In a letter written to Bishop Turner of New York dated June 14, 1933, Bishop Hafey says, “I am writing to ask an unusual permission… To give the work some publicity and to obtain a little assistance I am making arrangements to have the Chapel Car visit such towns and cities along the New York Central Railroad … Trusting that you will find it agreeable to grant us this privilege …”
Despite a successful northeastern fundraising tour, in the long run, the train car had too many drawbacks. Mounting maintenance expenses and being limited by the location of train tracks made the St. Peter inefficient. A new method for reaching rural North Carolina was needed.
Madonna of the Highways and Motor Chapels
Bishop Vincent Waters, installed in 1945, was the third bishop of Raleigh. Coming from another mission territory, Virginia, he came to Raleigh with conversion of Carolinians being his greatest goal. He instituted the Missionary Apostolate, a four-part program with the single mission to increase Catholicism in North Carolina. One integral part of that apostolate was the ‘Trailer Apostolate.’
This mobile trailer called, “Madonna of the Highways,” held a chapel, living space, an area for visiting and an outdoor altar. Priests were sent to remote areas of North Carolina to continue to teach people about Catholicism and to celebrate sacraments with Catholics who did not have a Catholic church nearby.
Reverend John Hyland, St. Catherine of Siena pastor at the time, was the first superior of the Missionary Apostolate. Therefore, the Wake Forest church became the headquarters for both the Missionary Fathers and the mobile trailer-chapel.
Seeing the success of the Madonna of the Highways, the apostolate also outfitted a motor chapel called Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. This motor chapel took inspiration from Baptist tent revivals and was used primarily in the summer months to gather people for outdoor services.
Over two decades, missionary priests crisscrossed Carolina with tireless zeal and with a hope to reach every corner of the state. At the time of Bishop Waters death in 1974, Catholic churches existed in three-fourths of North Carolina counties and the state’s Catholic population had increased from 14,000 to 78,000.
Today’s mission work continues in North Carolina
Through this leadership and the continued efforts of Raleigh’s fourth bishop, Joseph Gossman, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh saw continued growth in both Catholic population and funding.
A consequence of this growth was that North Carolina was no longer considered a “mission territory” by groups such as Catholic Extension, and therefore, that outside monetary support stopped. Though this signaled a bright future for Carolina Catholics, there are still many rural areas that were witnessing growth in Catholicism without the infrastructure or resources to build churches.
In light of that, in 2007, Bishop Michael Burbidge announced the establishment of the Raleigh Home Mission Society. The purpose of the Home Mission Society is to secure funding for construction of mission churches and chapels in North Carolina especially in areas where economic circumstances do not allow for funding through traditional ways like capital campaigns, loans or savings.
St. Joseph the Worker in Warrenton, profiled in the July/August issue of NC Catholics, enjoys a beautiful new sanctuary, thanks, in part, to the Home Mission Society.
From a Catholic population of 6,000 when the Diocese of Raleigh was established in 1924, to an estimated 500,000 today, it is important to recognize and celebrate the steadfast work of missionaries that brought us to this day.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. - Matthew 28:19