Until the 1960s, Roman Catholics made up less than 1 percent of North Carolina’s population.
But the state once considered mission territory by the Vatican is now home to the biggest Catholic parish in the United States: Charlotte’s St. Matthew Catholic Church.
With 10,370 registered families, the church in Ballantyne is No. 1 by a nose. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Houston has 10,255 registered households.
This month, America, a national Catholic magazine, profiled St. Matthew. The cover features a bird’s eye view of the church’s sprawling campus, with the headline: “Super-Sizing Parish Ministry.”
Catholics have come a long way in North Carolina, which didn’t get its own diocese until 1924 – at the time, the last state in the union to gain that status.
The Diocese of Raleigh comprised the whole state until 1972, when the 46-county Diocese of Charlotte was created.
In 1980, North Carolina had fewer than 100,000 Catholics. Now, thanks mostly to the great influx of Catholics from Northern states and Latin America, there are more than 400,000.
David Hains, the spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said the number of Tar Heel Catholics is closer to 900,000 now – about 450,000 in each of the two dioceses. That would mean Catholics would represent almost 10 percent of the state’s population.
Like Catholicism in North Carolina, St. Matthew had humble beginnings.
The church was established in 1986, when 237 families began attending Mass every Sunday in the Tower movie theater.
Now its 10,000-plus registered families translates into 35,599 members – or 13.7 percent of the entire Charlotte diocese.
Here are some of St. Matthew’s other big numbers:
▪ Between 10,000 and 12,000 attend its 10 Masses every weekend – six of them in the 2,000-seat sanctuary, three at its South Campus in Waxhaw, and one in the Parish Center (a gym).
▪ More than 7,000 parishioners have signed up as volunteers.
▪ The number of children who show up every week for faith formation classes totals about 3,700.
▪ Between 600 and 700 kids receive First Communion in a single weekend, during four Masses.
▪ About 500 teens receive Confirmation during ceremonies on a Friday and Saturday.
▪ St. Matthew has 103 active ministries. One of its biggest: Every summer, the church sends 2 million pounds of food to Haiti and Jamaica.
Maybe the most amazing statistic is this one: St. Matthew has only four priests.
And the pastor, Monsignor John McSweeney, is still going strong in his 70s.
As America, the magazine reported, big St. Matthew is also good about forming small groups so most everybody can connect with other parishioners who share their interests or family situations.
“There’s something for everyone, for all age groups,” parishioner Mary Estock says in an upbeat video posted by America. Then, laughing, she adds: “If you can’t find it at St. Matthew’s, I’m not sure it exists.”
Other interesting factoids in the America article:
St. Matthew has a crucifix on the wall of nearly every one of its rooms. And to keep the church’s counts accurate and up to date, ushers sometimes stand by the doors of the sanctuary with clickers in their pockets, tallying the number of people who walk through.
The last provocative word goes to Pastor McSweeney, who told America that his parish sent representatives to other megachurches around the country to see how they do it.
“The star (of the other churches) is usually the pastor,” McSweeney says in the America video. “The star here at this megaparish is Jesus Christ.”