In the late 1800s, the few Catholics who lived in Johnston County met occasionally at each others’ houses. They held Mass only when a priest was passing through.
Flash forward more than a century and the congregation that once numbered in single digits has mushroomed into one of the most thriving parishes in the region. St. Ann Catholic Church – still the only Catholic church in Johnston County – is home to about 1,600 families.
To make room for a population that has more than quadrupled in the past 20 years, the church on U.S. 70 Business has relied on other churches and even a movie theater to house its educational programs and small group meetings. But that will soon change, as church leaders will break ground next month on a $3.5 million, 17,000-square foot parish center next to its sanctuary.
“It isn’t just a luxury; we really do need it,” said Monsignor David Brockman, the church’s administrator.
The parish center will have a social hall that can seat up to 250 people for dinner and 400 people in an assembly-style setting. A kitchen, meeting rooms, offices, additional parking and space for the church’s growing food pantry are also in the blueprint.
Dean Penny, chairman of the St. Ann building committee, said growing up in Johnston County, he never met a Catholic until he went to college. But he married into the church in the late 1990s. Since then, he’s witnessed the boom in new members from the Northeast and from the Hispanic community, which makes up about 50 percent of the church’s population.
“We are a very diverse community across all nationalities,” Penny said.
The influx of new members has prompted the church to expand its worship services. While the church’s founders once struggled to find a priest on a monthly basis, St. Ann now holds Mass six days a week, including two Spanish and three English services on weekends.
An $845 chapel
After years of meeting haphazardly, the first Catholics in Johnston County built a small chapel named St. Peter in 1915. They held Mass every other month in the $845 building on North Seventh Street in Smithfield, according to the church’s written history.
But the Johnston Catholic community did not become a parish until 1935, when a woman from Boston gave $5,000 for a new church in North Carolina. The regional bishop gave that money to the Smithfield group, and a new rectory went up in early 1941. At that time, according to church records, 43 Catholics lived in the county.
The church built an addition in the 1960s and held its first Spanish service 20 years later. In 1998, with more than 500 families on the rolls, St. Ann started the building campaign for its current sanctuary, which opened in 2002.
Knowing they would pay off the mortgage on the sanctuary in 2012, church leaders started the planning process for a parish center. A St. Ann-commissioned study put the tab at $6 million.
John Shallcross Jr., head of the church’s finance committee, said the congregation decided on the less expensive, $3.5 million plan.
“What we were able to do was pare it down to something we thought we could reasonably undertake,” Shallcross said.
Last summer, the church held a four-month capital campaign to raise money for the parish center. Proceeds from the church’s annual International Food Festival, which brings in about $45,000 a year, aided the effort.
Shallcross said the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh is lending the church money to help pay for construction.
Some of the greatest growth is in the church’s religious education programs. For instance, the youth program, with about 700 children, often uses the Smithfield Cinemas movie theater for meeting space.
Penny, the building committee chairman, said church groups also meet at Sharon Baptist Church in Smithfield and at Short Journey Retreat Center near Smithfield, a building owned by the Diocese of Raleigh.
“With the church sanctuary the only building on campus, we are using facilities all over the county for different ministries,” Penny said. “This current project is our next growth pattern for being able to serve the needs on campus.”
The parish center will house the church’s food pantry, which gives out more than 100 bags of groceries each week to needy families.
The new building, designed by Cannon Architects in Raleigh, will be go up slightly northeast of the sanctuary. Kimley-Horn in Raleigh, where Penny works, is completing the engineering, and Clancy and Theys will handle construction.
Church leaders will break ground on the project at noon Sunday, Nov. 16. They expect construction to wrap up by September 2015.