Ned Barnett

The quiet eclipse of a Raleigh spiritual landmark

Members of the Catholic clergy walk toward the entry way of Sacred Heart Cathedral for the Red Mass Friday Oct.9, 2009 in Raleigh. The Red Mass recognizes government officials and those who work in the legal profession.
Members of the Catholic clergy walk toward the entry way of Sacred Heart Cathedral for the Red Mass Friday Oct.9, 2009 in Raleigh. The Red Mass recognizes government officials and those who work in the legal profession. Staff photo by Chuck Liddy

All the hoopla surrounding the opening of Raleigh’s new Roman Catholic cathedral last Wednesday will have a quiet counterpoint this morning. Sacred Heart church — now without its cathedral status — will be empty on a Sunday for the first time in nearly a century.

A few miles away, in the newly christened Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral that rises above Western Boulevard, churchgoers will worship and look about the $41 million domed edifice that can hold up to 2,000 worshipers. Sacred Heart, whose capacity for 320 made it the smallest U.S. Catholic cathedral outside of Juneau, Alaska, will stand unattended on the northwest corner of Hillsborough and McDowell streets in downtown.

The Diocese of Raleigh really had no choice but to expand into a larger space. Sacred Heart’s parish base has ballooned to more than 7,000 people, and the diocese needed a gathering place that could better serve the half-million Catholics now living in eastern North Carolina. But still, the transition brought sadness for those whose lives were woven into the small stone church through baptisms, marriages and funerals; through Easters, Christmases and moments of reflection alone beneath the stained-glass windows that tell the life of Christ and a vaulted ceiling that holds a heaven of painted stars.

At the end of the last noon Sunday Mass on July 23, some members of the congregation cried. These painful partings are common in cities of the Northeast and Midwest where shrinking populations of Catholic churchgoers have forced the closure of grand churches that once overflowed and were connected to Catholic grade schools. Indeed, some of the stained-glass windows in the new cathedral come from a shuttered church in Philadelphia.

But the closing of Sacred Heart on Sundays (it will continue to celebrate a 12:10 p.m. Mass on weekdays and be the site of weddings and funerals) evokes a regret of a different sort. Sacred Heart is ending its days as Raleigh’s cathedral and a place of Sunday worship not for a lack of attendance, but for an excess of it.

The Rev. Justin Kerber, Sacred Heart’s rector, has celebrated as many as eight Masses in a weekend to compensate for the church’s limited space. He said he has tried to be respectful of the sadness some longtime parishioners feel, “but we can’t stay here.” He stresses, though, that the Catholic Church plans to keep the property, and it will be active during the week.

The change at Sacred Heart is about more than a loss of a status or a schedule. It is also the end of an era for a pioneering place that used faith to bridge two differences, the first involving Catholics as a tiny minority in North Carolina and the second involving racial segregation.

A century ago in North Carolina, Catholics were an oddity — and subject to some prejudice — in a state dominated by Protestants. The small Catholic community in Raleigh announced its presence in 1924 by opening the modest church just a block from the State Capitol. (One parish story has it the the City Council approved the building, but limited the height of its bell tower.) Even today, Sacred Heart is dwarfed by the Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist churches on its three sides.

Nonetheless, Sacred Heart endured and grew. Its grade school and high school educated generations of Catholics and non-Catholics. The high school moved and became Cardinal Gibbons High School. The lower school remains as the Cathedral School, which will relocate to the new cathedral’s campus in a few years.

In 1953 Bishop Vincent Waters began ending segregation in the diocese. In 1954 the Catholic school for black children in Southeast Raleigh, St, Monica’s, joined the Cathedral School to become one of the first integrated schools in North Carolina. Sacred Heart’s Sunday noon Mass still reflected that merger with many African-Americans in the congregation and a spiritual choir that favored gospel music.

Monsignor Gerald L. Lewis, 84, has been a member of the Diocese of Raleigh for 56 years and serves at director of the diocese archives. He was the rector of Sacred Heart for three years in the 1990s and concedes that its changed status evokes nostalgia.

He said the new cathedral will not completely eclipse the original one. “We do appreciate the fact of having a downtown church that’s close to the state employees and the business community,” he said. “There are a lot of functions of church other than the most important one, which is the Sunday Mass.”

That’s true, but this Sunday those who knew the church will note its silence and perhaps hear in memory lines from a song often sung by the spiritual choir: “He walks with me and he talks with me and tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.”

Barnett: 919-829-4512,