Protestant South Becoming a New Catholic Stronghold

Dixie Catholics credit the strong Southern sense of community, and dialogue with faithful Protestants, with helping to power the Church’s growth there.

Courtyard of St. Dominic's Monastery in Linden, Va.
Courtyard of St. Dominic's Monastery in Linden, Va. (photo:

LINDEN, Va. — In the waves of turbulence that rippled throughout the Catholic Church in the 1970s, the nuns of St. Dominic’s Monastery found themselves forced to leave their longtime home in Wisconsin in search of a new one.

The nuns moved to a temporary residence in Washington, D.C., while looking for a permanent setting conducive to the cloistered, contemplative life they sought to lead. It would be more than two decades before they found one. When they did, it was in what may seem a most unlikely place: the rural northeast of Virginia, considered one of the Protestant Bible Belt states of the South.

The story of St. Dominic’s Monastery’s southern move may be the story of U.S. Catholicism. New data shows that some of the fastest-growing dioceses in the country are deep in the U.S. South.

The third-fastest-developing diocese is Atlanta, which saw the number of registered parishioners explode from nearly 322,000 in 2002 to 1 million in 2012 — an increase of more than twofold, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Atlanta also has the largest Eucharistic Congress in the country, with an annual attendance of about 30,000, according to an archdiocesan official.

Atlanta is not alone. Charleston, S.C., has seen a 50% increase in parishioners over the last decade. Charlotte, N.C., grew by a third, as did Little Rock, Ark. The Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., established just 25 years ago, is now the 25th-fastest- growing diocese in the nation — and would rank near the top if those official figures counted as many as 60,000 unregistered Hispanic congregants, according to a diocesan official.

Dioceses like Knoxville stand in stark contrast to former Catholic strongholds like Boston and Philadelphia, where parish consolidations, school closures and dwindling priests are the norm.

“Instead of us closing parishes and closing schools, we’re doing the opposite. We’re in total growth mode,” said Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville.

When Knoxville was established as a diocese in 1988, it had 37 parishes. It has since added 14, including four mission parishes. It has also expanded three parishes, built a new high school and opened one middle-elementary school. Meanwhile, the number of parishioners has doubled.


Bountiful Vocations

One telling indicator is vocations to the priesthood. Knoxville expects to have 23 men in graduate seminary next year. Contrast the Archdiocese of Chicago, which has 37 times as many parishioners but only three times as many graduate seminarians next year, at an anticipated enrollment of 70. Boston, which is nearly 30 times the size of Knoxville, will have 60.

“There’s excitement here in Tennessee and I would say in the Southeast in general,” Smith said.

That sentiment is shared by the nuns at St. Dominic’s Monastery, who have found a thriving local Catholic community that boasts nearby Christendom College as another institutional gem.

“We ourselves are astounded by the depth and beauty of the Catholic culture and community that surrounds us,” said one nun, permitted to speak only on the condition of anonymity because of rules governing the cloistered life of the monastery. “We never felt so loved by the surrounding community.”

The Southeast does not have a monopoly on exponential growth. Among the top 25 high-growth dioceses, nearly half are in the U.S. Southwest, stretching from Fresno, Calif., the second-highest-ranking diocese, to Laredo, Texas, the first. But there, Hispanic immigration is behind most of the growth, according to Mark Gray, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

In the Southeast, however, something different is happening. In a region where churches sit on seemingly every street corner and billboards belt out Bible verses and calls for repentance, local Catholics say they have found fertile ground for the renewal of the Church.

“Our Protestant brothers and sisters have done us a great favor. Talking about faith here in the South is like eating, breathing and sleeping,” said Randy Hain, a managing partner at Bell Oaks Executive Search in Atlanta and co-founder of The Integrated Catholic Life, an online magazine. “There’s an openness about faith here, which makes it easier to be open about your faith if you’re Catholic.”

Smith, who grew up in Colorado, suggested that it is easier for Northern Catholics to take their faith for granted because most of their friends belong to the Church.

“It doesn’t really challenge the Catholics there to know their faith as well or be able to explain it clearly,” added Lisa Wheeler, founder of Carmel Communications, a Catholic marketing firm in the Atlanta area.

But in the South, where they are a decided minority in a predominantly evangelical-Protestant population, Catholics must constantly defend their faith. As a result, they come to cherish it, Smith said.


Streams of Converts

Dialogue with Protestants has produced a steady stream of Catholic converts, who now constitute one of the driving forces of growth in the region, Wheeler said.

When Hain, himself a convert, was received into the Church in 2006, there were 27 members of his confirmation class. His wife’s class, in the same year, had 33. At the time, there were 1,900 registered families in his parish, St. Peter Chanel in Roswell, an Atlanta suburb. Now, there are more than 3,000, according to Hain.

Converts do more than just fill pews: They bring enthusiasm and passion for their faith with them into the Church, said Hain and Wheeler, a fellow parishioner at St. Peter Chanel. Such energy is reflected in the breadth of ministries at the parish, which number more than 60 — and that’s not counting the many independent ministries run by parishioners. The Integrated Catholic Life is one example of the broad reach of the parish: The other co-founder of the site is a deacon at St. Peter Chanel. 

Besides converts, transplants are a second source of growth. In Knoxville, many out-of-state arrivals are known as "halfbacks": people who moved from the cold North to Florida, only to move halfway back, settling in eastern Tennessee, where they can enjoy four seasons, without the cold weather, Smith said. Atlanta has the added allure of being a major transportation hub for business, Wheeler said. 

Hispanic immigration is still a factor in regional growth, but it is mentioned more as a secondary contributor than as the leading cause.


Strong Sense of Community

Another potential advantage working in favor of the South: a greater sense of community associated with the predominantly rural character of the region, as contrasted with the dense urbanization of many Northern states.

The difference between rural and urban dioceses can be measured in terms of vocations. “I have seen a trend over the last 10 years, where the most rural dioceses are tending to generate more seminarians per capita than the major rural metropolitan dioceses,” said Father Thomas Baima, the vice rector at Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago area. He says higher-density cities have greater mobility, meaning young people don’t put down roots and make those long-lasting connections to parish communities out of which vocations arise.

Every single state in the U.S. South has a lower population density per square mile than each state along the Boston to D.C. urban corridor, U.S. Census data shows. At the extreme ends, New Jersey has just over 1,195 residents per square mile, against 56 in Arkansas, as of the 2010 Census. In the middle, Pennsylvania has nearly 284 residents per square mile, while Virginia has just over 202.

Even a large city like Atlanta is more decentralized. Most of the metro population is in the suburbs outside the city limits, where communities coalesce around church and school, Hain said.


Lessons for the North

Catholics in the South say their experience holds lessons for their Northern counterparts. Wheeler says Southern hospitality has also rubbed off on local Catholics.

“I think that is something that is missing from many parishes in the North,” Wheeler said. She noted that some of her extended relatives in the Northeast have moved to Protestant churches due to a lack of hospitality in their local parishes.

Hain believes that if Catholics in other areas were as open about their faith as Southerners are, there would be a resurgence in the Church.

“Let’s worry less about offending others,” Hain said. “Let’s worry more about practicing our faith.”

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.