Southern Cultures 10.4 (2004) 91-93
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Roman Catholicism has historically played a minor role in the life of the Old North State. North Carolina's first known Catholic family dates only from 1775, the first parishes were not established until 1829, and on the eve of the Civil War the Catholic population totaled just six hundred. North Carolina was the last state in the nation to receive its own diocese, a development that occurred in 1924 with the establishment of the Diocese of Raleigh. As if to symbolize architecturally the status of Tar Heel Catholicism, Raleigh's Sacred Heart Cathedral is to this day the smallest Catholic cathedral in America.
The seed of North Carolina Catholicism germinated slowly. While North Carolina had no permanent Catholic churches or clerical presence until well after the Revolutionary War, a few colonial Catholics lived in places like New Bern and Edenton. The most influential early Catholic was William Gaston, a lawyer from New Bern who was the first student to enroll in Georgetown University. Gaston became a defender of religious freedom when his appointment to the State Supreme Court, in spite of a state constitutional ban on Catholics holding public office, engendered controversy. Gaston's efforts resulted in a relaxation in religious tests for public office.
Though small of size, the North Carolina Catholic Church developed strong connections to some of the nineteenth century's most prominent American Catholics. Bishop John England of Charleston and Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, the century's two dominant Catholic leaders, both worked in North Carolina and took a special interest in the church's development there. Moreover, some colorful individuals enriched the early church. For example, John Monk, a physician from Newton Grove, converted to Catholicism after receiving a package [End Page 91] of medical supplies wrapped in a copy of a sermon given by the Archbishop of New York and went on to become the state's most effective evangelist.
Tar Heel Catholicism bloomed following the Second World War. Between 1945 and 1974, Vincent Waters, the third bishop of Raleigh, built a strong institutional church. Waters proved a prolific fundraiser whose missionary zeal attracted priests and religious leaders from across the country. Besides exercising normal religious duties, Waters's personnel engaged in such unconventional activities as conducting a religious census of Raleigh and traveling across the state in chapel trailers to evangelize small towns.
During Waters's episcopate, the Catholic population grew from fourteen to seventy-eight thousand, thereby prompting the 1972 division of the state into two dioceses, one based in Raleigh, the other in Charlotte. Still, much of the growth occurred for reasons beyond the bishop's control. The economic boom that occurred in North Carolina following the Second World War drew many Catholics—especially young professionals, retirees, and new immigrants—to burgeoning metropolitan areas like Raleigh-Durham. The growth of Tar Heel Catholicism, therefore, parallels North Carolina's emergence as a robust part of American society.
North Carolina's overall population exploded after the war as the economy evolved from a rural to a metropolitan one. The state's Catholic population reflects these trends. Between 1970 and 2000, North Carolina's Catholic population surged by 357 percent. In 2000 roughly 315,000 Catholics lived in North Carolina with 75 percent of the population contained in just sixteen counties, primarily in the metropolitan Piedmont.
Powers's narrative of Tar Heel Catholicism is valuable in three ways. First, Powers has authored the first comprehensive work on the subject, drawing on diocesan and university archives along the East Coast. Moreover, since the church's growth has been such a recent phenomenon, Powers was able to interview many of the major figures, and these interviews enrich the volume.
Second, unlike many church histories, Powers's account is not told exclusively from the perspective of the hierarchy. Naturally the actions of bishops deserve attention, but Powers also devotes considerable space to the experiences of lay people, minorities, parish priests, women, and members of...