Local News

JFK assassination opened Southern eyes to Catholicism

Posted November 20, 2013

Map Marker  Find News Near Me

— When President John F. Kennedy was killed 50 years ago Friday, the entire nation was in shock, but few grieved more than the Roman Catholic community.

The first Catholic president, Kennedy was an icon to Catholics nationwide, especially to the few living in North Carolina in the early 1960s.

"At that time, a lot of people in North Carolina thought Catholics and communists were something to be feared, and they didn't know much about either. But they knew they were both outsiders and somebody different," said Father Joe Vetter, the pastor of St. Therese Catholic Church in Wrightsville Beach, who was a high school student in Asheville in 1963.

"It gave us a different stature in the community to have a Catholic president," Vetter said. "I felt a deep sense of loss (when he died)."

Former Gov. Mike Easley remembers the anti-Catholic sentiment when his father visited with Nash County farmers in 1960, stumping for votes for Kennedy and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry Sanford.

"Kennedy? I ain't got any use for those Catholics," Easley, who attended a Catholic school in Rocky Mount at the time, recalls one man telling his father.

The prejudice has softened greatly since then, and membership in the Catholic church has boomed as North Carolina's population has grown in recent years. There are about 400,000 registered Catholics in the state, compared with fewer than 40,000 a half-century ago.

Easley said he believes Kennedy's election helped boost acceptance of Catholics in the South.

"It was a validation or affirmation that being Catholic was OK at a time when only about one-tenth of 1 percent of the population of North Carolina – that's all – was Catholic," he said.

Vetter traces the change to two events – Kennedy's funeral and a special Mass in Boston two months later. Both were viewed by millions of people nationwide.

"There were people who had never experienced a Catholic service before that, all of a sudden, experienced something that had a certain amount of mystery to it, and it was certainly a prayerful kind of experience and it wasn't as bizarre as people might have thought it could have been," he said.

"It was for our president, and that gave it credibility it might not have had," he said. "To see how we treat a person with reverence and respect after they have passed on and we also witness to our belief in God's mercy and eternal life, I think that was a good experience for everyone."

33 Comments

This story is closed for comments. Comments on WRAL.com news stories are accepted and moderated between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Oldest First
View all
  • timexliving Nov 22, 7:01 p.m.

    "Some times prejudice is warranted. Take into account the abuse that the Catholic church turned a blind eye to in the past 50+ years. Would you not be right to keep your children away from these people? The multi-million dollar settlements speak volumes." aspenstreet1717

    As reprehensible as that was, the rate of abuse in the Catholic Church was no more than in the general population. It's the fact that they are supposed to be holy and pure and they still did this is what made the headlines.

  • Backpacker Nov 22, 11:34 a.m.

    "Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it something about Parkland that caused all these people to coincidentally die in the same place?"

    It has something to do with having a gunshot wound and Parkland being the closest hospital.

  • seankelly15 Nov 22, 10:46 a.m.

    aspenstreet1717 - "Some times prejudice is warranted. Take into account the abuse that the Catholic church turned a blind eye to in the past 50+ years. Would you not be right to keep your children away from these people? The multi-million dollar settlements speak volumes."

    The abused were parishioners not children in general. AND, back in the 60s the abuse was not known so your attempt at justifying prejudice based on the actions of a small number of priests is quite a stretch. AND who are THESE PEOPLE? WHENEVER I hear reference to THESE PEOPLE I know that I am dealing with a bigot.

  • Backpacker Nov 22, 9:43 a.m.

    Ahhh religion. Can’t you just feel all the love?

  • Nope Nov 22, 9:00 a.m.

    "Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it something about Parkland that caused all these people to coincidentally die in the same place?"

    Oh brother. This country has really gone down the rabbit hole.

  • aspenstreet1717 Nov 22, 8:24 a.m.

    Some times prejudice is warranted. Take into account the abuse that the Catholic church turned a blind eye to in the past 50+ years. Would you not be right to keep your children away from these people?
    The multi-million dollar settlements speak volumes.

  • timexliving Nov 21, 6:27 p.m.

    "Is it any wonder people are starting to look at religiosity with increasing wariness and skepticism?" soapbox

    NO. You choose to see the bad. I choose to see the good.

    As I've posted before it's always churches, mainly Christian Churches, that raise money for flood, tornado, hurricane, typhoon, earthquake, and tsunami disaster victims around the globe. Samaritan's Purse had their people on the ground within two days of the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

  • timexliving Nov 21, 6:22 p.m.

    "Things haven't really progressed here in the south and I say that as a Roman Catholic" --- Obamacare for one and all

    If you believe that they you don't live in the same South the rest of us live.

  • timexliving Nov 21, 6:20 p.m.

    "The Catholics have an extremely poor record of abusing people of other faiths/denominations. The prejudice should not be a surprise to anyone.." aspenstreet1717

    Please provide examples of the Roman Catholic Church abusing people of OTHER FAITHS/DENOMINATIONS in the past 200 years. Even if there is an instance or two, the charitable works the Church has performed within that timeframe far outweigh the negatives.

  • pandersson34 Nov 21, 4:08 p.m.

    Parkland Hospital is not only the place where JFK died, but where his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, died two days later, and also where Oswald's own assassin, Jack Ruby, also died four years later.

    Was it a conspiracy that all these people died in the same place, or was it something about Parkland that caused all these people to coincidentally die in the same place?

    Parkland has come under fire recently from government regulators, at one point losing its Medicare status, and is currently on 7 straight years of federal probation for patient care lapses and fraud. Many patients who come to Parkland die for no reason at all.

    It’s no coincidence. You can read about the intriguing back story about Parkland and the JFK assassination on the website, "The Parkland Orgy of Death."

More...