JFK assassination opened Southern eyes to Catholicism
Posted November 20, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — 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."