“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock when someone contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
On July 26, the “pile of rocks” that once was a farm on the outskirts of Raleigh will be dedicated as Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral with all the pageantry of a medieval coronation. Its 50 bells will ring out over the city as 2,000 men and women, including dozens of bishops and state dignitaries, process down the aisle and take their seats. The Catholic Church has arrived.
Even after 1924, when North Carolina became the last state in the union to have a diocese established within its borders, Catholics remained but a drop in a Protestant ocean. Sacred Heart Church in Raleigh was more than adequate to serve as the cathedral, if that title is appropriate for such a modest structure. A bishop quipped that he could stand at the altar and greet the faithful coming in the front door.
Although the new cathedral will be a symbol of the extraordinary increase in the number and affluence of Catholics in recent decades, it is worth noting briefly the history of the church in the state and of the land on which the Cathedral stands. In 1868, at the end of the Civil War, there were but two priests and perhaps 700 Catholics in the state. One priest called it a “desert.” In that desert, Thomas Frederick Price, a native of Wilmington and the first Catholic priest born in the state, planted a seed that a century later would bloom into a cathedral. In 1897 Father Price purchased a 400-acre farm two miles outside downtown Raleigh and opened an orphanage for boys. For Price, to be a Catholic was to practice the biblical Acts of Mercy: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless.
Fast-forward several decades. Social conditions have changed and the orphanage was closed. Much of the land was sold to the state and became the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University. The remaining property became the site of Cardinal Gibbons High School and the administrative offices of the diocese.
Forward again. The high school is relocated to a modern campus on Edwards Mill Road and church headquarters moved to north Raleigh. Now, where once orphans, nuns and an idealistic priest worshipped in a humble wooden chapel, the towering cathedral has risen.
In the procession down the marble-floored aisle, we might imagine people not invited to the dedication. There are the hundreds of orphans who years ago lived in tears on that sacred ground. There are the dedicated Sisters of Mercy who cared for those children as if they were their own. And there’s Father Price, not dressed in regal finery, a towering miter on his head, but in the simple black cassock of a parish priest.
Also, self-conscious but determined, are the thousands of men and women from Latin America who now worship in Catholic churches throughout the state, many of them fearful of deportation. Their hearts beat with pride at the news that of one of their own, Luis R. Zamara, a native of Colombia, has been named bishop of Raleigh by Pope Francis and will be installed next month.
Last in the seemingly endless procession, majestic organ music echoing off the vaulted walls, walks a homeless man. It is said that he was born in a stable and died on a cross.
William Powers lives in Chapel Hill. He is the author of Tar Heel Catholics: A History of the Catholic Church in North Carolina.