Catholicism in the South: Once a Strange Religion, Now Forging Ahead With Evangelical Fervor

A group of nuns stop at a gas station and ask for directions. A local woman asks for prayers. This scene would have been unimaginable 50 years ago.

(photo: Michael Hawk/

SHELBY, N.C. — The day after a newspaper in the small town of Shelby, N.C., reported that the Te Deum Foundation had acquired nearby land for a new Catholic seminary and monastery, a group of nuns in habits stopped at a local service station.

Fifty years ago — 10 years ago and, to some extent, even today — many Southerners regarded Catholics as unsaved and Catholicism as a non-Christian mystery religion.

But that day, everyone at the station greeted and welcomed the sisters. One woman even asked the nuns to pray for her injured nephew.

This acceptance marks a sea change in the Southern Baptist and evangelical Protestant-dominated South, where Catholics make up less than 10% of the population, compared with double-digit percentages in most northern states.

The Diocese of Charlotte, where the seminary will be located, is a prime example of Catholicism’s explosive growth in the South. Formed in 1972, the diocese had an initial 11,200 registered Catholic families.

By 2010, there were more than 63,000 registered families and an estimated 291,000 unregistered Catholics, including many of Hispanic origin. This brings the total Catholic population up from just 1.3% in 1972 to 9.7% today.

Much of the growth comes from immigration: northern Catholics following technology jobs southward and Catholics arriving from Spanish-speaking countries. But Catholics from the north can’t expect to find the pockets of cultural Catholicism typical of the ethnic enclaves of big cities, and Hispanic Catholics won’t find a village whose rhythm revolves around feast days.

Within hours of their arrival in the South, newcomers will be welcomed heartily by their Protestant neighbors — and invited to their church services.

“In such an environment,” wrote Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, S.C., in his website welcome to parishioners, “those who are casual cultural and cafeteria Catholics quickly become either ex-Catholics or evangelical Catholics, and that is paradoxically one of the reasons why our congregation and many other Southern parishes are flourishing: The unique challenge for Catholics seeking to live their Christian faith in the South leaves no room for spiritual mediocrity, doctrinal confusion, uncertain commitments or a lukewarm interior life.”

He is so fervent in this belief that he has composed what he calls the “Principles of Evangelical Catholicism.” In them, he promotes the ideas that “being a follower of Christ requires moving from being a Church member by convention to a Christian disciple by conviction” and that “all the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed.”

This evangelization of others, he said, will invariably occur through contact with devout Catholics. Most Protestants will never meet a priest; it is up to the Catholic faithful to represent their religion, share their faith and develop their own biblical literacy.

Blessed Pope John Paul II often called for this evangelization. In his apostolic letter Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Beginning of the Third Millennium) he decreed: “A new apostolic outreach is needed, which will be lived as the everyday commitment of Christian communities and groups. ... Christ must be presented to all people with confidence. We shall address adults, families, young people, children without ever hiding the most radical demands of the Gospel message, but taking into account each person’s needs in regard to their sensitivity and language, after the example of Paul, who declared: ‘I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22).”

“In making these recommendations, I am thinking especially of the pastoral care of young people,” the Pope continued. “Precisely in regard to young people, as I said earlier, the Jubilee has given us an encouraging testimony of their generous availability. We must learn to interpret that heartening response, by investing that enthusiasm like a new talent (Matthew 25:15) which the Lord has put into our hands so that we can make it yield a rich return.”


JPII Generation Comes of Age

In the South, the rich return is evident. The young people that grew up with World Youth Days, the return to Eucharistic adoration and the Church’s renewed focus on youth and vocations are now young parents who are excited about their faith and want to immerse themselves and their children in parish life.

Father John Tetlow, pastor of San Juan del Rio Church in St. Johns, Fla., has seen the fruits of the well-catechized generation now reaching maturity. His parish’s catechetical program enrolls 900 children, and the school grows every year. Seventy youth will go this summer to Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Catholic Youth Conferences. Driving this is a very involved and enthused constituency of young parents. “These people are a product of John Paul II’s World Youth Days and his New Evangelization,” he said. “They’ve all been impacted by his bringing them back to the Church, and it has spread to their children.”

When Blessed John Paul visited Columbia, S.C., in 1987 and spoke to a crowd of mostly Protestants, Catholics comprised just 2.1% of the population. Not only were they in the minority, but they faced a host of misconceptions and prejudices.

“When John Paul II came to South Carolina, there was still a great deal of hostility and suspicion among evangelical Protestants in this part of the world,” said Father Newman in South Carolina, where Catholics now make up 4.2% of the population. “His visit opened hearts and sowed the seed bed for relationships between evangelical Christians and Catholics. Once local people ceased to think of Catholics as loathsome and alien, they were attracted by the morality and the clarity of the Church’s moral teaching.”

The Church’s unflinching stance on moral issues continues to draw adherents as Protestant churches wrestle with abortion and same-sex “marriage.”

“Men and women who have lived their whole lives in that (Protestant) community are looking for a place to land,” said Father Newman.


Seminarians Taught How to Build Parishes

The solid moral foundation is also drawing those with no religious roots. Msgr. David Brockman, vicar general for the Diocese of Raleigh in North Carolina, notes that when he was first ordained in 1990 about 70% of those entering into full communion with the Church were from another Christian tradition. This year, of the 1,000 people who entered the Church at the Easter vigil, 60% were unbaptized. “I attribute this directly to our efforts at evangelization,” he said.

As is happening across the South, the Diocese of Raleigh is growing rapidly, with the Catholic population ballooning 42% between 2000 and 2010. The Diocese of Charlotte, home of the planned seminary and monastery, has opened six new parishes in the last 10 years. In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the Catholic population has tripled since 2000 and increased nine-fold since 1980 — and these numbers do not include unregistered Catholics of Hispanic origin.

This growth has also spread to vocations. In one year, the number of vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., jumped from nine to almost 30. “There is a domino effect,” said Father Remek Blaszkowski, the diocesan vocations director. “Men in seminary become inspirations to other young men.”

By focusing on a strong campus ministry and high-school vocations discernment, and by encouraging young men to meet and interact with seminarians, Father Blaszkowski said the seeds are sown for more vocations.

In Atlanta, where the number of priests has increased from 121 in 2000 to 191 today, Father Tim Hepburn, archdiocesan vocations director, attributes the rising numbers to the archdiocese’s increased focus on youth. When he was ordained in 1993, the archdiocese had no paid youth ministers. Now almost every parish has one.

These were also the years, deep in the heart of Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate, when children’s religious-education classes became more catechetical and when biblical apologists like Scott Hahn taught Catholics how to defend their faith. People also saw the Pope’s strength, even as he aged.

“Young men saw the strength that came from the missionary zeal of the Gospel,” said Father Hepburn. “They saw the priesthood as the best way to express that strength.”

With these numbers, it seems only natural that the South should have its own regional seminary. That was Billie Mobley’s reasoning when, in 2003, she established the Te Deum Foundation, whose mission is to provide seminarians with material and spiritual goods. With few resources beyond prayer and divine inspiration — while praying at Fatima in front of the crown that houses the bullet used in the 1981 assassination attempt on Blessed Pope John Paul II, she heard a priest behind her say, “Build my seminary” — Mobley began planning for a seminary so that young men could study in the area where they would one day serve and absorb the South’s unique religious flavor.

In March, she stood beside Bishop Peter Jugis as he blessed the land. “The Te Deum Foundation’s mission and seminary project are both praiseworthy endeavors in the service of the Lord and his Church,” said Bishop Jugis.

Currently, seminarians from the Diocese of Charlotte attend school in Maryland and Ohio. The regional seminary would be the only one located in a large triangle between Florida, the District of Columbia and Louisiana.

“Most seminaries teach how to close parishes,” said Mobley. “Priests in the South need to know how to build parishes, and they need to learn biblical apologetics to defend their faith.”

The 484 acres, about 60 miles west of Charlotte, will be split between the future seminary and a permanent monastery for the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, Mother Angelica’s cloistered nuns who moved from Ohio to a temporary monastery in Charlotte in 2010.

Details for construction and administration are few, although Bishop Jugis supports Mobley’s efforts and is allowing the Te Deum Foundation to fundraise. Mobley said she is relying on God to reveal details as needed. In the meantime, she is concentrating on what she calls “the journey of doing it”: “The people God pulls into this mission, their experiences, their journey and their exposure to our

faith — maybe that’s what God wants. God puts all these people in place for a reason.”

Mobley can already name numerous Protestant Southerners touched by their experiences with the seminary, from the non-Catholic landowner to the people at the service station who greeted the nuns.

For all the writings and musings on evangelization in the South, Mobley’s approach is simple. She says, “All you have to do is be a good Catholic, and people will follow.”

Register correspondent Dana Lorelle writes from Cary, North Carolina.