Local News

NC Catholic Population Grows Through Conversion, Immigration

Posted November 25, 1999 6:00 a.m. EST

— The world has seen the number of Catholics reach a new record under the leadership of Pope John Paul II. Membership has swelled to more than 1 billion.

Julia Schmidtt, a native of Raleigh, now studies in Rome. She says she likes the Vatican and the faith it represents.

"When you see the person of the Holy Father, there's something that emanates from him that brings so much hope to people of all different religions," she says.

Schmidtt represents part of the growth of Catholicism in the Triangle. There are now close to 160,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh, which stretches from Burlington to the coast, covering 54 counties.

"I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be a priest," says Father Tim O'Connor. And it shows, whether he is celebrating Mass in the Lithuanian Chapel in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome or at Raleigh's Sacred Heart Cathedral. O'Connor is a natural.

The native New Yorker was ordained 26 years ago. He wanted to work in China as a missionary, but his bishop had other ideas.

O'Connor remembers the conversation clearly. "He said, 'I know that you always wanted to go to China' and he said, 'What about the China of America?' I must admit, I said to him, 'Where in God's name is the China of America?' He said, 'North Carolina.' And I said, 'What makes North Carolina the China of America?' and he said, 'Well, the population of Catholicism is so small and so is the clergy.'"

So, O'Connor headed south, first to Rocky Mount then to Raleigh.

While he feels anti-Catholic sentiment has disappeared substantially, he still remembers his early days in the south when he was physically attacked and a cross was burned on his lawn by the KKK.

"Even where there are pockets of that still left, I just try to accept where those people are and pray for them," he says.

Some say the increase in Triangle Catholicism is the result of an "invasion," rather than conversion.

Five years ago, you had to travel to the countryside for a Catholic mass in Spanish. Today, there are so many Hispanics in the region that many churches offer Spanish services.

An enormous influx of Catholics from the Northeast is another part of the population equation. St. Michael's in Cary was built three years ago to accommodate 1,800 families. Its family membership today numbers near 4,000.

"The presence of Catholicism has grown tremendously, but it seems like we're growing into the pattern, growing into the mosaic of the people of North Carolina," O'Connor says.