While more than 80 orders of women religious and 30 orders of men religious have served in North Carolina at some time or another, certain orders have played a particularly prominent role. The Carmelite nuns, who for a decade had inhabited a contemplative community in Durham, departed in 1966. The Sisters of Mercy are another group of women religious who have made and continue to make a significant contribution to the Catholic landscape in North Carolina. Preceding all other women religious in the state by 35 years, the Sisters of Mercy made up the largest community of women religious in our state by 1999. For more than a generation, the North Carolina Sisters of Mercy operated all of the Catholic schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the state.
Also among the predominant women religious in the state, the Congregation of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (I.H.M.) of Scranton, Pennsylvania have made tremendous contributions. They have been ministering in the Diocese since 1926 and at one point were the largest community of religious women serving. It was these women who initially came to North Carolina to educate Black children, eventually establishing schools in Goldsboro, Greensboro, New Bern, Raleigh, and Rocky Mount.
Working throughout their time in North Carolina as nurses, teachers, administrators, religious educators, social workers, pastoral administrators, pastoral associates and social justice advocates, “active” women religious communities have proven more durable than contemplative communities (i.e., those communities whose focus was service through prayer). In general, religious sisters were sought to staff Catholic schools, whereas religious order priests were recruited to serve in ministry to African-Americans. With the exception of the Belmont Sisters of Mercy, the communities of women religious that have served in North Carolina have all come from other states — invited here to serve in varied mission work.
Following the Second Vatican Council, the mid-60s was a time of upheaval— in the world and in North Carolina. Many orders of women religious were embracing reform, and this included a switch from wearing habits to wearing secular clothing. This change in practice did not sit well with Bishop Vincent Waters, who, in 1971, wrote letters to the Superiors General of communities of sisters and the Superiors of religious orders of men working in North Carolina with clear instruction to return to their traditional attire. Even though most sisters complied with the Bishop’s order, they were not too happy about this inflexible ruling from the Bishop.
Some sisters left the Diocese over the dress code matter. This included the sisters of the Religious of Christian Education community serving at Asheville Catholic High School. Rather than be engaged in conversation on this issue, Bishop Waters arranged to have the Sisters of Mercy replace the non-conforming community of sisters in Asheville. A similar exodus occurred among the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, who were serving at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Burlington, as well as at St. Ann’s and St. Patrick’s in Fayetteville.
Whereas women religious were heavily involved in establishing and serving in schools and hospitals, religious order priests were predominate in forming parishes. Of particular note are the Jesuits and the Glenmary Missioners, who are credited with establishing Catholic parishes particularly in the far western and southern counties of the state. Key Jesuit priests in this history include Father Andrew Graves, SJ, and Father Jeff Burton, SJ, both of whom served in the mission territory of Hot Springs, North Carolina. The property that originally served as a house of study for newly ordained Jesuits, continues today as a Jesuit House of Prayer. This retreat center, adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, ministers to hundreds of Catholics each year. A similar transformation occurred in Durham. What is now Avila Retreat Center for years functioned as a Benedictine Monastery.
Also serving in the western part of the state were the Glenmary Home Missioners and the Glenmary Sisters. In 1954, the Glenmary Missioners began serving in the state’s westernmost counties, based in Murphy (Cherokee County). The two-fold focus of this community of men religious was to invite converts to the faith and to establish a Catholic presence for transplants to the area. “What must be emphasized is that, at no expense to the diocese, Glenmary built churches, formed congregations, and allayed anti-Catholic sentiment in the most remote section of the state” (Powers, p. 371). True to their goal, each Glenmary parish established in North Carolina was developed to the point of self-sustainability and then turned over to the Diocese.
On a path parallel to the I.H.M. sisters, the Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart were invited to the state to establish religious education programs for Catholic children attending public schools. They formed such programs in a number of cities, including Charlotte, Farmville, Henderson, and Winston-Salem. The basic plan was to form these religious education centers and staff them, at the same time training lay ministers to eventually take over as catechists.
In addition to serving the mission populations of Blacks in the state, men religious have been instrumental in ministering to the increasing Hispanic population. Of particular note is the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Similarly, in 1996 the Franciscan pastor at Immaculate Conception (in Durham) began serving Latino immigrants. Clearly, this is a vital ministry, as it is estimated that there are 240,000 Hispanic Catholics living in our Diocese today.
The Diocese of Raleigh: An Overview by Monsignor Gerald L. Lewis, 1999.