Canonization process for North Carolina priest progressing at deliberate pace

Father Thomas F. Price
Father Thomas F. Price Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese

It’s been nearly a year since the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh began the process of determining if a long-dead North Carolina priest should become a Catholic saint, and it appears a decision won’t come any time soon.

A tribunal researching the life and work of Father Thomas Price has made substantial progress, said its leader, the Very Rev. James Garneau, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels parish in Mount Olive. The tribunal has been gathering testimony from people who knew someone who knew Price, who died in 1919, or people who have been inspired by Price’s life and work.

Garneau compared this first step of the process to preparing a doctoral dissertation, saying his group’s job is to make sure there is “nothing left behind.” Tribunal members are on “God’s deadline,” he said.

“This is nothing you want to push,” he said.

Even when the tribunal finishes its work and passes its findings on to the Vatican in Rome, the path to sainthood remains long. The canonization process for Mother Teresa, the nun who founded the Missionaries of Charities and labored in slums in India for decades, began in 1999, two years after her death, but the Pope has not yet declared her a saint.

Price, who was born in Wilmington in 1860, became the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest in 1886. In 1898, Price established Nazareth Orphanage on 400 acres off what is now Western Boulevard in Raleigh. The diocese still owns 39 acres of the original plot and will begin construction of the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral there later this year.

Price went on to help found a Catholic missionary group, the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, in 1911 and died of appendicitis on a Maryknoll mission to China. Garneau says he may travel to China, where some missionaries feel they have information to add to Price’s file.

Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge kicked off the canonization process last February, a first for the growing diocese. From a handful of parishes in Price’s time, the Catholic church now has nearly half a million members in the eastern half of North Carolina, spread over 96 parishes and missions.

In addition to the interviews, which are done confidentially, the tribunal is also researching Price’s life and his religious development. Father Michael Walsh, curator of the Fathers and Brothers Archives at the Maryknoll Society in New York and a member of the tribunal’s historical commission, admits the process moves in a “glacial way,” but says there is “something noble about it.”

“The timeline is out of our hands,” Walsh said. “It is a matter of doing due diligence.”

In Rome, the tribunal’s findings will be reviewed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, a group of church leaders that will decide whether to recommend that the Pope declare that Price has shown “heroic virtue.” If Pope Benedict XVI agrees, Price would be referred to as the “Venerable Father Price,” and the process would enter its most important, and often the longest, phase: waiting for miracles.

At this point, the Catholic church asks God to perform a miracle – an act that cannot be explained through rational thought, such as the sudden healing of a tumor – through Price. If the Vatican is convinced that such a miracle has occurred, then the Pope can beatify Price.

Mother Teresa was beatified in 2003.

The final hurdle to sainthood is an additional miracle that can be attributed to Price. If the Vatican and the Pope find evidence of a second miracle, Price would be canonized and named St. Thomas Price.

It is impossible to tell if Price will be beatified or become a saint, and it is even more difficult to determine how long that process may take. The two American women canonized in 2012 prove that the process’ length can vary widely.

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who died in 1680, was canonized 32 years after she was beatified. By contrast, Saint Marianne of Molokai, who died in 1918, was canonized just seven years after her beatification in 2005.

The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh is still looking for people who can give testimony regarding the life and virtues of Father Price, even if that testimony is negative. Contact Father Garneau at The Office of the Episcopal Delegate for the Cause of Father Price, P.O. Box 1145, Mount Olive, N.C. 28365 or at 919-658-4023.