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.
PHOTO BY MICHAEL ALEXANDER, GEORGIA BULLETIN
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
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
And in Florida, while the percentage
of Catholics increased only slightly,
in absolute terms the number of Catholics
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 (www.transfiguration.com) 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
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
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.
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
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
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 (www.glenmary.org/grc), 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
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
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
For more information on how to help, please see
www.catholicextension.org, or write Catholic Extension,
150 S. Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60606, or phone
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.