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Standing Room Only At NC Catholic Churches

Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge
Frank Morock

There are so many Catholics in North Carolina these days, it’s hard to keep count.  Those who are keeping count say numbers have jumped 300 percent in a generation. The Diocese of Raleigh is growing so fast it plans to break ground on a 2,000-seat cathedral next year.  For now, if you plan on attending mass this Easter Sunday, you better get up early or you’ll likely be having service at an overflow site at the Clarion Hotel.  Or, you’ll just have to stand.

The rain wouldn’t seem to let up Palm Sunday.  And neither did the steady line of parishioners trying to get inside the small cathedral on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.  This was the 10:30 a.m. mass, the third mass of the day so far in what has become a small crowded place, seating about 300 people.

“Good morning, welcome to Sacred Heart Cathedral.  As we gather here today we will bless these palm branches and carry them high in honor of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” reads cantor Cindy Fitzgerald.

Holy Week is a big deal for a lot of people so it’s understandable there would be crowds on Palm Sunday.  But the Raleigh Diocese says it’s like this a lot and they’re over-due for a larger space.

Steve Zaytoun is co-chair of the committee raising money to build a new school on the site of the new cathedral off Western Boulevard. 

“We have had an average of 500 new families a year for the past four to five years here at the cathedral.  We’re busting at the seams,” says Zaytoun.

Zaytoun says that means on Easter Sunday, the Raleigh Diocese will have to have several masses.  He hopes he’s not one of the people who will have to stand up.

“Believe me, it gets a little hard on the knees on this beautiful concrete floor. But we’ll stand as long as we can get in here, we’ll stand as well.”

“In the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Peace be with you," says Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge as he enters the cathedral.

Burbidge is overseeing the new cathedral project.  It will be called Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral.

“We call this a good faith campaign.  We’re not taking loans out, we are not accessing or taxing parishes.  We’re going to build what God’s people will allow us to build," says Burbidge.

And so far, God’s people have raised $57 million.  Burbidge says he knows he’s asking a lot.

“And some are extremely enthusiastic and some struggle.  And a lot of time the struggle is with change.  Sometimes our human nature is not real willing to embrace change.  The reality is we have the smallest cathedral in the United States, with the exception of Juneau, Alaska,” says Burbidge.

Most of the growth has come from people moving to the state from Latin America, and transplants from the northeast United States. 

Professor Andrew Stern is the Religious Studies Program Coordinator at North Carolina Wesleyan College.

“It’s just amazing how now un-Catholic North Carolina was into about the mid 20th century, and that’s what makes this growth so remarkable.  It’s sort of coming out of nowhere," says Stern.

Stern says Raleigh doesn’t just have one of the smallest cathedrals in the country, North Carolina was the last state in America to have a diocese at all.

Easter Sunday, Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh will have 13 different services, using the school basement next door and the Clarion Hotel a block away.  Two of those services will be in Spanish.  Stern says there are still a whole lot of Southern Baptists in North Carolina, the single largest religious group.  But Just like the Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, their numbers are just holding steady.  There are about 400,000 Catholics registered in the state, but Stern says that’s a very low estimate. 

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She also is co-host of the podcast Tested and host of the special podcast series, PAULI. Leoneda is the recipient of numerous awards from AP, RTDNA and NABJ. She’s been a reporting fellow in Berlin and Tokyo. You can follow her on Twitter @LeonedaInge.
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