The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, citing the need to better serve its growing flock of followers in North Carolina and South Carolina, plans to build a new 2,000-seat cathedral and campus on 39 acres in West Raleigh.
The project, estimated to cost $75 million to $90 million, would place a major cultural attraction next to N.C. State University's emerging Centennial Campus and the campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital, which Raleigh officials hope eventually to turn into a park.
It will also require the diocese to undertake a major fundraising campaign at a time when the down economy has put a damper on charitable giving.
"I clearly understand this is a monumental, historic project," Michael Burbidge, bishop of Raleigh, said Wednesday as he disclosed plans for the campus. "I wake up every morning and I say, 'Lord, you sure you want me to do this? And the answer keeps coming back yes."
In addition to the cathedral, initial plans for the campus call for a gathering hall and a three-story parking garage. Burbidge said the venue will be home to major religious services and be a cultural venue for the region, hosting concerts and lectures.
"We are building a vibrant campus," he said.
The diocese plans to retain its Sacred Heart Church on Hillsborough Street in downtown Raleigh. That church, built in the 1920s to service the small number of Catholics in Raleigh at the time, seats just 320 people and has limited parking.
It is one of the smallest designated cathedrals in the U.S.
Burbidge said the Cathedral School, which serves 270 students at the Hillsborough location, will have the option of moving to the campus.
The diocese hopes to break ground on the campus by the middle of 2013 after raising about a third of the overall cost of the project. Donors have already pledged $10 million toward the campus, according to the diocese.
The campus is to be built on land between Western Boulevard and N.C. State's Centennial Campus. The property is the last of a 400-acre tract that was purchased in 1897 by Father Thomas Price, the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest.
More recently the land served as the campus of Cardinal Gibbons High School. Gibbons movedto Trinity Road in Raleigh in 1998.
Since then, the diocese has entertained a number of redevelopment proposals for the property, including turning it into a retirement community or a mix of apartments and condominiums.
Although significant, the expansion plans anounced by the diocese on Wednesday are not unusual in the Southeast, said Paul Griffiths, a professor of Catholic theology at Duke University's Divinity School.
"The big growth areas for the Catholic Church in the U.S. for the last 15 years have been the growth areas in the South," he said. "If you looked at the Northeast or the Midwest, you'd see stable or a slight reduction in numbers."
Griffiths noted that a new Catholic Church recently opened in Mount Olive, and his own church in Chapel Hill, St. Thomas More, recently completed a $9 million expansion.
Over the past decade the number of registered Catholics in the Diocese of Raleigh's 54-country region has increased 28 percent to 214,000.
In addition to transplants from other parts of the U.S., the Southeast has also seen an influx of Spanish-speaking Catholics from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
The Diocese of Raleigh estimates more than 200,000 unregistered Hispanic Catholics live in its territory.
"I would say the greatest difficulty facing the Catholic Church in this part of the country is exactly how to deal with rapid expansion and how to integrate the Spanish-speaking and Anglo populations," Griffiths said.
The diocese believes its Cathedral Campus will help the church deal with both those issues by bringing together worshippers from across the Southeast.
"I envision that our parishes and our schools will schedule pilgrimages to the cathedral and I will welcome them with great joy," Burbidge said.
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