Charlotte’s Catholic diocese faces big needs, deep divisions

The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, whose flock is more than 10 times larger than when the diocese was created in 1972, has embarked on a $65 million fundraising campaign that organizers say would address an increased demand for services and sacred space that shows no signs of letting up as more Catholics relocate here.

The campaign is by far the most ambitious in the history of the 46-county diocese. And if the goal is reached, the money would be used for, among other things, renovating Catholic schools, expanding Catholic charities, shoring up the priest retirement fund, boosting building plans, and ramping up ministries geared to the growing immigrant population – especially Hispanics. They make up about half of the more than 340,000 Catholics in the diocese.

Catholicism is now the largest single religious denomination in Mecklenburg County, which has 15 Catholic churches.

But at a time when Charlotte-area Catholics appear divided over the conservative leadership style of Bishop Peter Jugis, 57, the campaign could be imperiled – at least in Mecklenburg County, home to the diocese’s three largest parishes.

Many parents of Charlotte Catholic High students are still angry over his and the diocese’s handling of two recent controversies at the school, including last week’s resignation of popular principal Jerry Healy. That came amid questions about the school’s financial accounts.

And some well-heeled parishioners are boycotting the campaign to protest a $4 million earmark for additions at St. Patrick Cathedral in Dilworth – the bishop’s church – that they call a wasteful throwback to a traditionalist Catholicism that’s out of step with Pope Francis’ calls for more humility and less pageantry.

The focus of their ire: Plans to build a crypt, a part of the church used for burial of bishops, and an additional dressing room, or sacristy, this one reserved for the bishop to put on his vestments before Mass at St. Patrick. Currently, Jugis, like his predecessors, “vests” at the rectory next to the church.

The money for these and other additions at St. Patrick would be paid for, through the campaign, by donors from all over the diocese because the cathedral is the diocese’s “mother church.” But, unlike most of the diocese’s other parishes, St. Patrick is so committed to Old Church traditions that it does not allow girls to be altar servers and permits only priests and deacons – all of them men – to distribute Communion. Women do serve as lectors, or readers of the liturgy.

“We are appalled that the participation of women on the altar is disallowed in our cathedral,” Alex and Linda Sanchez, members of St. Peter Catholic Church in uptown Charlotte, wrote in a letter to parish and diocesan offices. “(And) we have no understanding of the ‘needs’ for an Episcopal crypt and private dressing area when there are families who are hungry.”

The Mooresville couple plan to skip the campaign and, instead, send checks to targeted projects because, as they put it in their letter, “we find it almost impossible to support a diocese that does not seem to heed the message of Pope Francis.”

‘Take the long view’

Attorney Benne Hutson, a parishioner at St. Gabriel, has some familiar advice – the one about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater – for those who object to a few of the many items that the campaign would fund.

Given all the needs in the diocese, the Detroit native said, “we need to take a step back and take the long view.”

Hutson was part of a group of 36 recruited by the diocese to come up with a list of needs the campaign would address. “I was struck by how great the needs are,” he said.

High on the group’s list are: addressing growth among Hispanics and other immigrant groups, all of whom worship in overflowing parishes; making sure Catholic Charities has the funds to serve resettled refugees, families too poor to bury their own, and thousands of others in need; and expanding the priest retirement fund so that 20 current priests and 25 more between now and 2024 are not left in the lurch.

So far, the campaign pledges have reached 75 percent of the goal, said Jim Kelley, the diocese’s director of development. Of the 92 parishes and mission churches, 35 have finished the campaign; the 57 others are still in the process, with most planning to be done by late summer.

Each parish gets to keep 25 percent of what it raises. In the Charlotte area, many are building or paying off debt from churches and parish centers already built. The campaign wouldn’t pay to build any new parishes.

St. Ann on Park Road, which plans to pay off debt and commission a mural depicting heaven with its 25 percent, exceeded its goal of $1.1 million by $800,000.

“When Holy Mother Church asks for our assistance, we are obliged to assist.” said Craig Lewis, a member of St. Ann.

Outrage lingers

But other, bigger parishes in Mecklenburg County have a way to go toward their much higher goals.

St. Gabriel in south Charlotte, which started on the campaign last October, has pledges of $1.7 million – 36 percent of its goal.

St. Mark in Huntersville has $547,000 in pledges; its goal is $3.2 million.

And at St. Matthew in Ballantyne, spiritual home to more than 9,500 families, the goal is $10.1 million. Pledges so far total $1.6 million. A few Sundays ago, Jugis was in the pulpit at St. Matthew, urging parishioners to give.

Bob Dunn, a St. Matthew parishioner who is among the campaign “ambassadors” paying visits to those who have a history of giving, is bullish about meeting the goal.

“I like to think we do big things at St. Matthew and we’ll figure out a way to get it done,” he said.

But donor fatigue and lingering anger about what’s been happening at Charlotte Catholic High could slow St. Matthew’s path to that $10 million goal.

Some point to many parents’ outrage over a conservative nun’s remarks about homosexuality and single parenthood at a student assembly in March. Jugis did not attend a meeting the diocese called that drew nearly 1,000 parents. But he later put out a statement sent to parents that said he was shocked to hear of the “lack of charity” exhibited by many of them during and after the meeting.

“His letter was very offensive to the parents,” said one St. Matthew parishioner and mother of Charlotte Catholic High students who asked not to be identified. “I have heard some people are hitting the pause button” on the campaign.

‘Stamps of continuity’

Then there’s the controversy over the planned crypt at St. Patrick.

For centuries, as the Catholic Church built mammoth cathedrals, crypts to bury bishops were standard features.

Charlotte’s diocese, created just 42 years ago, designated St. Patrick as its cathedral. Because it was built as a parish church in 1939, it was much smaller than traditional cathedrals.

Jugis would not speak with the Observer about the campaign. But spokesman David Hains said the planned additions for St. Patrick could be viewed as “a $4 million upgrade of a parish to a cathedral.” Besides the crypt and additional sacristy, the money would pay for an adoration chapel and renovations.

With this campaign, Hains added, “I think what the diocese is trying to say … is that we are a for-real diocese. The Catholics are here to stay and contribute. Edifices and crypts are stamps of continuity in the most important city in the diocese.”

But with Pope Francis, who has won high approval ratings partly for eschewing royalist trappings and calling on his bishops to do the same, the Catholic Church’s emphasis appears to be shifting to the streets and away from grand buildings.

“Building these huge cathedrals – those days are over under Pope Francis,” retired Bishop William Curlin, Jugis’ predecessor (1994-2002), told the Observer last week. “He’s stressing that the church should be the servant of the poor and the servant of the unwanted.”

At least one diocese is building a big cathedral these days – though it won’t be as big as initially planned.

The Diocese of Raleigh was hoping to raise $75 million-$90 million to build a new cathedral – its current one, a one-time parish, is the second smallest in the United States (The one in Anchorage, Alaska, is even smaller).

But this month, Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge announced that, after hearing feedback from parishioners, the diocese has decided to scale plans way back. The Raleigh cathedral will now cost $41 million. Among the features eliminated: a crypt.

In Charlotte, Hains said the crypt and bishop’s vesting room should be considered part of a “wish list. … We want to build them. But if we collect less than anticipated, the plans will be scaled back.”

If the crypt is built, it’s uncertain who will be buried there.

Curlin, who is 87, said he plans to be buried in the cemetery at Belmont Abbey, where he interred the cremated remains of his brother. It’s also where the diocese’s founding bishop, Michael Begley, was buried.

A few years ago, Curlin said he told the diocese he was not interested in having a crypt as his final resting place.

“I want to be buried at the monastery. You have the monks praying for you,” Curlin said. “If somebody wants to be buried in a crypt, that’s fine. But it’s not my style.”

Curlin calls Jugis “a very prayerful and good man” who anointed him during a recent hospital stay. But he said he and the three Charlotte bishops before him never saw a need for a new sacristy for the bishop. “Bishop Begley, Bishop (John) Donaghue and myself always vested in the rectory,” he said. “Just – what, 15 steps? – and you were in the church.”

Hains said even Jugis may not end up being buried in the crypt.

“It’s possible that Bishop Jugis will go to another diocese” as a bishop, he said. “And those decisions (on where to be buried) are highly personal.”