Kudzu Catholics: A Thriving Southern Diocese

by Adriana Watkins


In her novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather tells the story of a fictional 19th-century missionary sent to New Mexico—an expansive, under-served, and rather dangerous diocese. Despite the many obstacles to his work, Fr. Latour nourishes the impossible dream of one day building a cathedral. 


His companion exclaims, “Time brings many things to pass, certainly. I had no idea you were taking all this so much to heart.”


Fr. Latour laughs and replies, “Is a cathedral something to be taken lightly, after all?” 

At around same point in history, a real man named Thomas Price was purchasing a plot of land near Raleigh, North Carolina. He was the state’s first native priest, ordained in 1886, and he had no shortage of work. There were few Catholics and fewer clergy, all spread out over a diocese that encompassed the entire state. If you told Fr. Price that in a little over a century, his new plot of land—called “Nazareth”—would become the site of a major cathedral, it’s hard to imagine how he would have reacted. All of the Catholics in North Carolina could scarcely have filled such a place.


And yet, in 2017, crowds streamed to Nazareth for the dedication of the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral. This palatial church seats 2,000 people, a capacity often pushed to the limits. A tower loaded with 50 bells rings out over the land that, once, belonged to that tireless priest who had too much to do and just enough faith to do it well. 

Holy Name is a church that defies expectation. In 1924, as Cather published her novel about Catholic missions, the Diocese of Raleigh finally dedicated its first cathedral (there was never one during Fr. Price’s time). That cathedral—though beautiful—would later be counted the smallest one in the continental United States, with a capacity of 320. Today, after the opening of Holy Name, Raleigh has the 5thlargest in the country. It is the seat of a diocese whose growth has exploded into the hundreds of thousands within living memory.


The phenomenon isn’t unique to North Carolina; several Southern states have embraced an influx of Catholics from around the country and the world. They are building, expanding, and pushing forward, even as the Church at large suffers together, aching from parish closures and decades-old scandals in other regions. The shining copper dome of Holy Name stands as a ray of hope in a state where, even within the last century, virulent anti-Catholicism was broadly acceptable—and in a country where, even a year ago, a new wave of revealed crimes caused many to question their belonging in the Church.


American Catholics looking for strength and encouragement may find it looking south. 


Kudzu Catholics


In the 1890s, as Fr. Price bought Nazareth in his own name, an interesting agricultural phenomenon was taking place. A Japanese vine called kudzu had been imported to the United States, marketed in the South as a way to shade porches and prevent soil erosion. It grows so quickly that some people joke it can overtake slow-moving cars. By the mid-1900s, it had gotten out of control, and today, it continues to spread across the South in leaps and bounds, covering acres with its broad green leaves. 


The growth of the region’s Catholicism has worked in a similar way. The Diocese of Raleigh is now home to 215,000 registered Catholics, and approximately as many unregistered, while even forty years ago the numbers were in the tens of thousands. The vast majority have arrived since the 1970s, drawn by companies like IBM. As the state’s technological and research opportunities expanded, new employees moved there in droves—many of them Northerners, and consequently, many of them Catholics.


Msgr. Jeffrey Ingham, pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish and Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh, watched the dramatic growth of the diocese. He was ordained in Cleveland before asking to move to Raleigh in the early 1970s.

“It was very, very different from the large Northern dioceses,” he said. “In those days, it was still a mission diocese…1% Catholic, you know, at most. …It wasn’t until we had the major influx from the North that [things] really began to change.”


The hundreds of thousands of arrivals meant the growth of schools and parishes—there are 30 Catholic-affiliated schools (elementary and secondary) in the diocese today. New churches, like the towering St. Catherine of Siena in Wake Forest, were built and filled up with parishioners. Catholics from Latin America and Africa brought with them a wealth of cultural heritage. And in 2012, then-Bishop Michael Burbidge began raising funds for a cathedral, insisting that it would only be built according to the desires of Raleigh Catholics: no more, no less, based on contributions. The result—an expansive and debt-free cathedral—speaks for itself. 


Raleigh’s growth sticks out in turbulent times for the Church. Many of the diocese’s Catholics hail from the northern United States, where some parishes are closing and consolidating, and decades of scandals have wearied parishioners. Though there are more Catholics there, and the faith is an ages-old part of regional culture, the pews are often emptier. 


But the Church is universal, and in the South, too, Catholics carry these wounds. 


A Safe Ship


For centuries, the Church has been compared to a ship that weathers high seas and rough waters. In miniature, Raleigh’s Holy Name Cathedral is a part of this tradition, as all Catholic churches are. It is a symbol of the Church’s resilience in stormy seas.


Indeed, the cathedral did not open its doors to easy times. Only a year after its dedication, it hosted a Mass of Atonement for the 2018 clerical abuse revelations. 


Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama, the 6th Bishop of Raleigh, knows this. The burden of the scandals has wearied parishioners even in a vibrant diocese that continues to expand and thrive. Above all, it is a time for Catholics to band together.


“To follow Jesus is not easy,” he says. “And the saints are saints because they stay[ed] in the Church, and they were looking to purify the Church from within.”


To the many Catholics who have considered leaving, he says, “Are you leaving us, too? Jesus never tried to convince the people to follow Him. He asked, ‘Are you leaving me, too?’”


But there are many reasons to hope for purification and renewal. Raleigh’s priests, says Bishop Zarama, work tirelessly for the growth and life of the Church, and they are one of the major factors behind the diocese’s perseverance. 


“We have very generous priests serving in the diocese,” he said. “I have found here priests who are ‘retired’—who are notretired! They are willing to keep serving our people.” 


Having an active clergy whom laypeople trust has helped to keep Raleigh moving forward in difficult times, and

Bishop Zarama believes they are a strong example of the hope Catholics need in order to persevere.


“You cannot have faith without hope,” he says. “Hope is what moves us, [helps] us to see something beautiful in the future. And I think that looking at this example of these retired priests [is] a good example of the joy of the Gospel, an [indication] that something good is happening.”


He adds, “We need to remember that Jesus was in the boat with Peter in the middle of the storm…and he was taking a nap. He was there with the Church. In the middle of what is going on, we need to [see] that Jesus is taking a nap—He never abandoned us.”


As the Church continues to weather the storm, a valuable question is this: where does Raleigh’s continued energy, its continued expansion, come from? It seems absurd to conclude that only the most vibrant Catholics move there. More reasonable is that there is something in the diocese’s culture that helps its “kudzu Catholics” to pursue the faith zealously, and to grow cathedrals in open fields.


A Modern Mission


Part of that culture, says Msgr. Ingham, is its missionary spirit. This mentality is a hand-me-down from a not very distant past—the past of parents and grandparents, not great-great-grandparents.


Of those early Carolina Catholics, he says, “They were very strong in their faith, because they were always being challenged. They knew their faith, they were able to defend it, and they were very aggressive about living it.”


That vigor has carried to the present day, though Raleigh is no longer a mission diocese.


“You want to be part of a success story,” he says. “Just the idea of the Church growing the way it is—all of a sudden people wake up to that. […] There was always a missionary spirit that somehow held on. We had to keep beating the bushes, because everybody wasn’t Catholic who lived here. We still have that spirit that we have to be constantly building—we can’t simply sit back and say, ‘Okay, this is good.’ We have to keep moving.”


Perhaps it keeps moving because, lacking the deeper roots of the North, the Church is less taken for granted. Raleigh will have to keep its eye on such temptations in future decades, but for now, its charisma and vitality offer a fresh reminder to older dioceses of the intrepid faith that built them all. 


For Raleigh seminarian John DeGuzman, it is not only the missionary spirit, but also the classic Southern hospitality that helps build the diocese’s character.


“I think a lot of people in the Diocese of Raleigh—both Catholic and non-Catholic—are very, very nice and respectful of a conversation centered on belief in Jesus and our faith,” he explains. “That’s something a lot of Catholics do really well here, is that they make people feel welcome.” 


On growing up in this environment, he says, “I felt like I wasn’t scared to put out my doubts, to tell people, ‘I don’t think this is right,’ or, ‘I don’t agree with this. I don’t know what to do about this.’ And people have always been good at accepting that…and they kind of guided me to a point where I could really understand and grow closer to God.”

That process eventually helped to bring him to the seminary, where he is excited at the prospect of serving his community as a priest.


Raleigh’s seminarians currently study outside of their diocese, but they maintain a sense of community by meeting together and keeping up to date on diocese news. And of course, like all Raleigh Catholics, they love the Cathedral. DeGuzman says that is where he would take any person who claimed American Catholicism was waning. 

“I would bring that person to the Cathedral,” he says. “To show the beauty, but also to show that the church is very much alive. If you look, walking around it, it’s the fruit of people’s prayers and dedication to their faith and to the church of Raleigh.”

 The View from Nazareth


The cathedral is a good image for the Catholicism of a Southern diocese: startling, well-founded, and bigger than you could’ve expected. The story, of course, is not finished. There are still missions in North Carolina; there is still a need for priests to serve its parishes; there is still an overwhelming majority of state natives waiting to be gathered in to this patched-together family. But a long look at the Cathedral drags such work into the atmosphere of possibility.


Now is not the time for rest, as one suspects Fr. Price would agree, bumping along rural roads in his wagon—and Raleigh’s Catholics seem equal to the challenge.

What Bishop Zarama wants most for them, he says, is the gift of a humble heart.


“To be able to listen—first, to listen to Jesus, not what we want to hear but what we need to hear,” he says. “To listen requires a lot of humility. [To be] quiet needs a lot of humility. That is where we’ll ask the Lord to give us that gift, that we will be able to listen to what he wants for us to do.”


That first humble priest, Fr. Thomas Frederick Price, is now a candidate for canonization. His picture stands next to rows of votive candles in Sacred Heart Church, the former cathedral. 


In future years, it may happen that in addition to the saints in the Cathedral’s gallery, local Catholics could honor one who served its grounds in flesh and blood. This is the yield Raleigh hopes for: not so much the Cathedral itself, but the crop of men and women grown between its walls.


Says Cather’s cathedral-loving character, Fr. Latour, “We build for the future—better not lay a stone unless we can do that!”

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