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The Church in the South: Growing Pains
By Barbara Beckwith
The Church in the U.S. South has been blessed with amazing growth since 1966 due to a number of factors. But new members bring new challenges.


Less Lonely These Days
Minority Within a Minority
Preserving Comity and Community
Family Is Central
Old Nashville's Protective System
Atlanta's Eucharistic Focus
A Dynamic Marietta Parish
Vibrant and Friendly
Glenmary's Research Surprises
Extension Society Builds--and Rebuilds

The September 30, 2006, Multicultural Mass draws a capacity crowd at St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonseboro, Georgia. With so many new immigrants in Southern congregations, gestures like holding hands at the Our Father are especially meaningful.

IT USED TO BE a truism that few Catholics lived in the American South, with notable exceptions like New Orleans. Of course, the Protestant façade that the region presented was back in the days when the South voted Democratic. Catholics belonged to the forgotten Church, the invisible Church, the “quiet” Church.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines the South as the 14 states that stretch from Virginia to Oklahoma, and southward to the Gulf of Mexico. Surprisingly, now it is here that the Church is experiencing its greatest regional growth.

Between 1966 and 2006, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina saw both the number and the percentage of Catholics in the general population double, triple or more. In many other Southern states the percentage of Catholics increased relative to the general population.

And in Florida, while the percentage of Catholics increased only slightly, in absolute terms the number of Catholics nearly quadrupled.

During that same time, however, Louisiana experienced a major decline in the actual number of Catholics and their percentage in the general population—perhaps a recent aftereffect of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and underreporting by local dioceses.

This overall Catholic growth is due mainly to three converging factors: migration from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt for jobs, Hispanic immigration and retirees in search of more reliable sunshine. Local factors like Biloxi attracting Catholics whose religion allows them to work in the new casinos also come into play.

It took 100 years after the Civil War for the South’s economy to rev up, but now it’s booming and the people keep coming, some from as far away as Nigeria and Ghana. Incorporating newcomers is different for the Southern Church—and on such a massive scale, difficult anywhere. The Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, for instance, is dealing with the twin facts that over 95 percent of its Catholics were not born in that state and that, in the past 15 years, more Spanish-speaking people have settled in this state than in any other state in the country.

This growth is complicated by the deepening priest shortage in the country at large and in the South in particular, where many places traditionally depended on Irish-born clergy.

While the Church in the Northeast and Midwest is downsizing—closing parishes, reducing the number of Masses, curtailing services—the South has problems of growth—parishes to form and churches to build, increasing outreach services, dealing with new immigrants. Because all of this is happening in a post-Vatican II Church, the growth has a different look, with more lay leadership at the forefront.

Besides the institutional problems growth presents, having more Catholics in the South is a people problem: While hospitality is a virtue that defines the region, newcomers bring different ways of doing things, besides bringing different foods to church suppers.


Less Lonely These Days

When a new church was built in 1942 at Gilbert’s Place, Mississippi, Dorothy Joseph described the chapel as a monument to James Monroe Gilbert. He was a convert to Catholicism at age 12 who, with his convert wife, somehow managed to raise their eight children as Catholics: “Through the years, the Gilberts seldom saw a priest, for the road was long and tedious by train and wagon, and the 70-mile trip [to the nearest church] was a day’s journey. But they remained steadfast in their faith.” When Gilbert died in 1936, most of the area’s 53 Catholics were members of his family.

A fascinating history of such Catholic parishes in Mississippi, Christ: The Living Water: The Catholic Church in Mississippi, by Cleta Ellington (publisher Catholic Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, 1989), contends that the phrase “steadfast in their faith in small, isolated communities” sums up the experience of most Southern Catholics.

In contrast to Northern, urban, immigrant Catholics, being Catholic in the South used to be “a lonely experience,” Ellington says. Now Catholics in the South are less lonely, often suburban, and immigrants themselves or coping with the new immigrants.

Catholics in the South also used to experience discrimination because of their religion and minority status. A Texan who once edited a Catholic newspaper told this journalist that he never felt accepted until John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960. But now Catholics’ numbers are gaining them greater acceptance.

Minority Within a Minority

The South is more than an area bound together by Winn-Dixie grocery stores, one Southerner told me. It presents a counter-value system to the dominant culture, chief among these values being family and comity (harmonious social interaction).

Religion and family overlap strongly in the Southern experience. “In the experience of many Catholic Southerners, it is not family that is woven into Church, but Church into family traditions,” says Dr. Jon Anderson in the book he co-edited, The Culture of Bible Belt Catholics (Paulist Press, 1995).

The overriding sense has been of being a minority (Catholic) within a minority (Southern). “The Southern Baptist religious tradition remains in the majority and helps to set the tone in many Southern towns and cities,” according to now-retired Bishop William B. Friend of Shreveport, Louisiana, the other editor of the above-mentioned book.

The South had a varied settlement history that is reflected in a complex religious geography. Catholic farmers from Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, for instance, settled in pockets in Texas. “Catholic settlement in western Kentucky was early and in such numbers that the second diocese in the United States [Bardstown] was established there,” points out Anderson. (Although the Dioceses of Bardstown, Boston, New York and Philadelphia were all created on the same day in 1808, Bardstown is first alphabetically.)

Add to that the Irish who worked on railroads and the river, Italian farmers on the Mississippi Delta and Lebanese traders throughout the region, plus immigrants from Eastern Europe drawn to the coal mines of Appalachia and mill towns in Virginia and the Carolinas, and the result is a much more religiously diverse landscape than suspected.

“Current ‘Sunbelt’ industrialization in the South continues the pattern with a contemporary twist,” says Dr. Anderson. “The migration to the Sunbelt is largely to new suburbs, which are around smaller towns as well as cities and where ‘new’ Catholics to the region come for managerial and professional jobs.

“Raleigh, North Carolina, Norcross outside of Atlanta, and the environs of Austin in Texas are repeating with high-tech and research industries the earlier experience,” says Anderson of Catholics concentrating in or near booming cities.

“But what is transplanted in the current setting is a suburban and white-collar culture rather than ethnic ones of European peasants; what they are transplanted into is a setting where Church has historically depended on people and not the other way around, at least not for a very long time,” Anderson finds.

Preserving Comity and Community

In such tight-knit communities, the main virtue is comity, the ability to get along with others. “Pastors notice, for example, that Catholics are comfortable being in the community, living a good family and personal life and saying little about what they believe as Catholics,” says Bishop Friend.

At a bishops’ meeting in the 1990s, he told St. Anthony Messenger more about the distinctly Southern approach to conflict: “Southern Catholics reflect their environment in that they prefer to avoid conflict and share their ideas only with people whom they know very well.”

Bishop Friend finds these regional preferences also affect how Church teachings should be presented. If they “are presented forcefully on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, many folks will leave. Comity is preferred, and the timing has to appreciate a slower response,” he says in his book. “Southerners, much like the universal Catholic Church, believe time is on their side.”

Family Is Central

Family frames all Southern relations, and a Church that incorporates a healthy perspective on the centrality of family in people’s lives prospers in the South, stresses Bishop Friend.

Religious education and youth groups, RCIA and marriage-preparation classes, and groups like the Knights of Columbus and Daughters of Isabella remain the main Catholic social gatherings that create and reinforce Catholic identity, according to Gwen Kennedy Neville of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, one of the contributors to the Anderson-Friend book.

These formal organizations are supplemented by dinners, breakfasts, picnics, weddings and funerals, fall festivals and quinceñeras (the Hispanic celebration of a young woman’s 15th birthday). All these reinforce the family-Church connection. The community nature of these celebrations emphasizes the Body of Christ dimension of the Catholic Church. Catholics prefer to come to God as families and a community, while Protestants tend to stress the individual standing before God.

Old Nashville's Protective System

A Southerner who moved North 15 years ago to assume the job of associate publisher at Our Sunday Visitor Publishing House in Huntington, Indiana, Msgr. Owen Campion has a clear perspective on differences between the Northern and Southern Church. His family goes back generations in Nashville, Tennessee, where he used to edit the diocesan newspaper, The Tennessee Register.

The city of Nashville is now five percent Catholic, but was only two percent Catholic when he was growing up, he tells me in a phone interview last January. But there the Catholic Church provided a protective, closed system of its own.

Owen attended a Catholic elementary school staffed by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. “Most of the sisters were from Tennessee, and I think that was rather important because they conveyed a certain sense of ownership in the local Church.” Owen went on to attend what was then the only Catholic high school for boys in Nashville, administered and taught by diocesan priests. (Later as a young priest he would teach history there.) “The Diocese of Nashville was unique among Southern dioceses because there were no foreign-born priests, and there were very few priests who were not born in Tennessee.”

Because his family knew the families of the priests and nuns, as a young man he was never afraid of them. He says he could always separate their personality from their role.

Msgr. Campion remembers an incident when he first started serving Mass in sixth or seventh grade at his parish. The servers were new and “the boy beside me and I didn’t know what to do next, bring up the cruets or the Latin responses or whatever. We started whispering back and forth. After Mass, the celebrant, who was recently ordained, just exploded at us. He told us our constant talking had been so distracting that he had almost forgotten where he was, that this was so disrespectful. I went home really shaken.

“I shared that with my dad and told him, ‘You know, Father was just so angry this morning and flew off the handle, and I don’t know if I ever want to go back.’ And I remember my dad said, ‘Now, don’t worry about that. That is the way everyone in his family is. I played baseball with his father and his uncle and, if they missed a pitch, they’d get so angry sometimes they’d walk off the baseball field....Father is a good man, a good priest, and our families have been friends for years. They are even distantly related to us.’

“The point I am making,” Msgr. Campion continues, “is that this old network of family and acquaintances put that priest and others into human dimension. And after I went on to the seminary and then was ordained, this priest became one of my best friends. And I watched him lose his temper on many occasions, and I always remembered what Dad said when he painted it as some genetic trait in that family.”

Msgr. Campion went on to college at St. Bernard Abbey in Cullman, Alabama, where about 30 percent of the students came from Tennessee and about 30 percent from Alabama, and then to St. Mary’s Seminary near Baltimore to study for the priesthood. At that time St. Mary’s had more than 20 students from Tennessee. He was ordained in 1966.

In his opinion, Southern communities that had a Catholic institution like St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville have had an easier time dealing with the new growth. St. Thomas Hospital, still run by the Daughters of Charity, gave Catholics a source of pride and presented a public face of the Catholic Church as a caring and generous institution where everyone was treated, which impressed non-Catholics. “Good medical care was combined with caring in the human sense. Such institutions, like St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham or Providence in Mobile or Saint Joseph’s in Atlanta, allowed the Catholic Church to have visibility in society far beyond what its numbers would predict. I think it is a pity that health care is changing.”

He thinks the new growth of the Catholic Church is not considerable among African-Americans because of the legacy of segregation and the Catholic Church’s late embrace of the civil-rights movement. His high school was the first in the South to integrate, and graduated its first four-year integrated class in 1958. But in general, Msgr. Campion believes, “The way that the institutional Church either treated or was indifferent to African-Americans is shameful.”

On the plus side, he notes that the Franciscans often served parishes peopled by blacks. He has high praise for Archbishop James F. Lyke, O.F.M., of Atlanta, one of the first African-American bishops, who died in 1992.

Atlanta's Eucharistic Focus

The Diocese of Atlanta was established in 1956, when the 71 (later 69) northern counties were detached from the Diocese of Savannah. Then it had 23,600 Catholics, 23 parishes and 12 missions. In 1962 Atlanta became an archdiocese. Under its second archbishop, Thomas A. Donnellan (1968-1987), 32 new parishes were established. Now the archdiocese has 175,000 Catholics and 82 parishes.

After Bishop John Francis Donoghue of Charlotte (a native of Washington, D.C.) was appointed archbishop of Atlanta in 1993, he worked to restore the morale of the Atlanta Church with a renewal focused on the Eucharist. An all-day event in 2001 celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi at the Georgia International Convention Center was expected to draw 5,000 people; more than 10,000 Catholics (including this journalist) attended.

One of the police officers, exasperated by the traffic jam, told me, “It’s like some rock star is performing.” The event testified to the enthusiasm and vitality of Atlanta Catholics, and this focus on the Eucharist as Christ present to us emphasizes what makes Catholics different from other Christians.

Since 2004, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, an African-American from Chicago and former bishop of Belleville, Illinois, has headed the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Since he was coming off a term as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he gives Atlanta new prominence.

Atlanta also welcomed the extension of Spring Hill College (founded in 1830 in Mobile, Alabama) into the archdiocese 10 years ago. Having only a handful of Catholic institutions of higher learning in the South has limited Southern Catholics. But since 1997, 58 people have earned graduate degrees in theological studies at this Jesuit extension, and 59 are currently enrolled there. Some students are completing certificate programs in lay ecclesial formation or spirituality to become better Church professionals or volunteers in ministry.

A Dynamic Marietta Parish

Transfiguration Catholic Church in Marietta, Georgia, is one of the shining lights of the Atlanta Archdiocese. The community grew from a group of 75 families in the mid-1970s who joined together for spiritual retreats in the Georgia mountains. About 45 families attended the first official Transfiguration Mass on November 13, 1977, in the banquet room of a local hotel. Transfiguration operated from storefronts and “tin-tent” buildings before the church was opened in 1987 and the parish center in 1997.

The parish now has 4,444 registered households (15,394 registered members). That doesn’t include those Hispanic parishioners who have not registered because they may be in this country illegally.

Msgr. Patrick Bishop is Transfiguration’s third pastor, whom I interviewed in Atlanta in 2001 and again by phone in February 2007.

The church itself is distinctly post-Vatican II, with pews rising theater-style. The altar juts out into the center of the congregation. The parish has one Saturday-anticipated and four Sunday Masses in English and one in Spanish. Three of the English Masses are interpreted for those who are hearing impaired. A four-foot-deep baptistery with flowing water is at the entrance. Masses start with people introducing themselves to their pew-neighbors, which Msgr. Bishop thinks is essential.

The parish center has rooms for religious-education classes, social functions and day care. The parish boasts 60 different charitable, educational and spiritual ministries and organizations. The full commercial kitchen contributes to the variety of activities possible in the social hall. The parish uses the small base-community model to create a sense of intimacy in this very large parish.

Msgr. Bishop is assisted by Father John M. Matejek, two deacons and three pastoral associates (two laywomen and a sister from Nigeria). When the parish lost its Spanish-speaking assistant, a former assistant generously volunteered to have the Spanish Mass, although his own parish is across town.

One of the unique ministries of Transfiguration is its CareerCare Ministry. The job market in Atlanta used to be very fluid, but is now more stable. Still, “people are moving to the area by droves,” says Msgr. Bishop. This networking group meets weekly to assist all those in career transition with job leads and résumé help.

This huge parish is trying to build community without a parish school. Almost 2,000 youngsters participate in the religious-education program known as PREP. Twelve hundred are at the grade-school level. Eight hundred teens participate in ChrisTeen. For adults, there are classes like the Lenten Bible Study, which this year focused on Luke’s Passion narrative.

Msgr. Bishop was born in the Atlanta area, and lived in Marietta all his life. His father was a Southerner, but his mother hailed from Minnesota. Pat was in radio and television at the University of Georgia and then studied for the priesthood at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained in 1974 for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Later, he got an M.Ed. in administration from Georgia State University.

The choir director, Patricia Fointno-Dawson, is African-American and brings a love of all kinds of music. Lucas McHenry is the new accompanist for the music group. A recent arrival in the Atlanta area for a job, he describes in a video clip on the Web site ( getting involved in the parish because here he felt needed. Marilyn MacInnis, the parish administrator, keeps things organized.

This parish runs on volunteers, like the 800 who have offered to assist with the current fund-raising to build an activities center with gymnasium, lounges for adults and teens, and more classroom space. “The vast majority of our people are involved in one ministry or another,” says Msgr. Bishop.

He compares his parish to “a small Southern town where the neighbors know and take care of one another and make it a friendly place.”

Vibrant and Friendly

Hospitality has always been the hallmark of the South, but now the region has the jobs and burgeoning economy to attract people permanently. How to cope with growth, yet keep the Church friendly, is today’s challenge.

Many priests and seminarians are studying Spanish. Announcements at the Atlanta Eucharistic Congress were in both Spanish and English, as well as many sessions. Bulletins of Southern parishes often have pages in Spanish. But that’s another story for another day.

Msgr. Campion, who gets to travel back to his beloved Nashville only occasionally now, sums up today’s Church in the South as having a different mood: different from when he grew up and different from Indiana, where he now lives. That mood is hopeful. The new jobs in the South give everyone energy for everything: “It’s now a question of what we are going to start and how soon,” he says. And that gives a vibrant dynamic to the Church there.

For Msgr. Bishop in Marietta, whose little parish has grown into a mega-church, “Impersonalization is the devil we don’t want to deal with here.” Maintaining the small-town friendliness and traditional family-centeredness will be essential for the future of the Church in the South.

Glenmary's Research Surprise

GLENMARY HOME MISSIONERS maintains a research center that collects and crunches numbers on Catholics in the South. This Nashville-based center published a major report of the relative strength of all religious communities in the United States and their distribution as of the year 2000.

Glenmary currently has 50 missions and ministries in Appalachia, the South and the Southwest. Glenmary priests, brothers and lay co-workers serve in small towns and rural areas where the Catholic population is less than three percent. When an area becomes more Catholic and a mission becomes more established, Glenmary turns over the parish to the diocese and then moves on. Since the 1940s, Glenmary has “graduated” over 100 parishes. For this reason, the society needs accurate numbers and in 1966 established a research center.

Kenneth M. Sanchagrin, Ph.D., has now retired as director of the Glenmary Research Center, but in May 2002 he previewed the current study at the Catholic Press Association’s annual meeting.

What’s unique about the study is that it counts religious membership for 149 different religious congregations down to the county level. As of 2000, Catholics in the whole United States were 22.0 percent of the general population. But in the South, between 1990 and 2000 the number of Catholics nearly doubled, an increase faster than the total population’s growth.

Catholics are definitely still a minority in the South, but are the fastest-growing religious body there, according to Clifford Grammich of the Glenmary Research Center, in a lecture for the Faith and Reason Institute given February 23, 2007. One in eight Southerners is now a Catholic.

When Glenmary’s new map, “Status of Catholic Pastoral Ministry in Southern United States, 2000,” based on the 2000 statistics, was unveiled in 2003, it showed that Catholic ministry in the South is failing to keep up with the increasing numbers of Southern Catholics, says Dr. Sanchagrin.

Southern Catholics are less likely to have grown up in the region than other Southerners, and are more likely to be African-American or Hispanic or Asian than Catholics elsewhere or than other Southerners.

Grammich also considers it “noteworthy that Southern Hispanics appear to be less Catholic than other Hispanics, particularly given that six of the seven Latin dioceses with the fastest rates of total Hispanic population growth—Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, Little Rock, Raleigh and Birmingham—are in the South.” Only 54 percent of Southern Hispanics are Catholic, compared to 65 percent of Hispanics elsewhere. Most of these “lost” Hispanics have joined Protestant evangelical churches. Baptized Catholic, many were never catechized and some did not even receive their First Communion.

Grammich says one of the surprises in the new statistics is that Southern Catholics have higher levels of income and education than other Catholics or other Southerners: “Thirty-six percent of Southern Catholics have annual family incomes of at least $50,000, while 27 percent have at least four years of college education.” This fact “may help the Church build its institutional presence in the region.”

On the other hand, “as demonstrated by the comparatively low attendance at church and by the propensity of many to leave Catholicism, many Southern Catholics may have only a tenuous relationship with the Church. Strengthening this relationship may be key to sustaining the growth Southern Catholicism has enjoyed by migration.”

Called Religious Congregations & Membership in the United States 2000, this comprehensive study is available from Glenmary Research Center, 1312 Fifth Avenue, North, Nashville, TN 37208 (, at $110 for the book and CD with database files and $25 for CD alone. The four-color, 11x17” map, “Status of Catholic Pastoral Ministry in Southern United States, 2000,” is also available for $15.

Extension Society Builds—and Rebuilds

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH Extension Society, which is still celebrating the 100th anniversary of its 1905 founding, helps keep the faith alive in rural mission areas of the United States where Catholics are too few in number or too poor to support a parish.

Donations to the papal mission organization help build churches, support religious education, finance seminarian studies, underwrite campus ministry and evangelization programs and subsidize salaries of religious and lay missioners. Historically, many of these have been in the South.

In 1995, Catholic Extension celebrated the 10,000th church built with its support, located in Hugo, Oklahoma.

In the wake of the devastating Gulf hurricanes of 2005, the U.S. bishops asked the Society to coordinate parish-to-parish aid to places like Creole, Louisiana, and Pass Christian, Mississippi, where the churches were completely destroyed.

Several hundred parishes from 111 U.S. dioceses have joined the relief effort called the Parish Partnership Program. Its scope has now expanded to cover aid to needy missions in other parts of the country from Alaska to the Mississippi Delta.

For more information on how to help, please see, or write Catholic Extension, 150 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606, or phone 1-888-473-2484 (47-FAITH)

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger. For 33 years this native of Chicago, Illinois, has worked in Cincinnati, Ohio, two miles north of the Ohio River, a traditional boundary of the South. She is grateful to many editors of Southern Catholic publications for their help with this article.


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