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Which Wilmington native might become a Catholic saint?

Ben Steelman


Efforts are currently under way to promote the cause for canonization for the Rev. Thomas Frederick Price (1860-1919), the first native-born Tar Heel to be ordained a priest in the Roman Catholic church and cofounder of the Maryknoll missionary order.

According to Father Michael P. Walsh, M.M., the vice postulator of Price’s cause, the effort is in its early stages. Currently, Maryknoll fathers and the Roman Catholic diocese of Raleigh are still collecting evidence of his life, work and reputation for holiness.

Price was born Aug. 19, 1860, in Wilmington, the eighth of 10 children of Alfred Lanier and Clarissa Bond Price. Alfred Price had come to New Hanover County in 1844 to edit the Wilmington Journal, which he converted from a weekly to North Carolina’s first daily newspaper in 1851. Both parents were Catholic converts at a time when the Roman Catholic Church was regarded with horror and suspicion by many North Carolinians. Clarissa Price, born a Methodist, was ostracized by her entire family for converting.

As a boy, Thomas Price served as an acolyte to the Rev. James Gibbons (later a cardinal and, as archbishop of Baltimore) at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Wilmington. He often accompanied Gibbons on church business around the eastern part of the state. In 1876, Price entered St. Charles’ College in Catonsville, Md. (surviving the shipwreck of the Rebecca Clyde along the way). In 1881, he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He was ordained on June 20, 1886, by Bishop H.P. Northrup at St. Thomas Church in Wilmington.

Price subsequently served parishes and missions around eastern North Carolina, including tenures at St. Paul’s Church in New Bern and Sacred Heart in Raleigh. He showed a talent for evangelism, often preaching on street corners or in open fields, and he made a special effort to convert African-Americans. In 1898, he founded Nazareth House, an orphanage, outside Raleigh. Following in his father’s footsteps, in 1897, he launched Truth, a monthly devotional magazine aimed at winning hearts and minds for the faith. He continued as editor until 1912, when the magazine was taken over by the International Truth Society.

In 1904, at a meeting of the Catholic Missionary Union in Washington, Price met the Rev. James Anthony Walsh, a future bishop, who was then director of the Propagation of Faith for the Boston diocese. The two priests launched a six-year letter-writing campaign to launch an American seminary devoted to foreign missions. By the time they met again, at the 1910 International Eucharistic Congress in Montreal, their plans had evolved to conceive an American Foreign Missionary Society. The two gained the support of the American hierarchy and traveled to Rome in June 1911. On June 29, 1911, Pope Pius X formally approved their plans.

The American Foreign Missionary Society became known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, after its headquarters at Maryknoll, near Ossining, N.Y. It emphasized ministry and missionary work in China, Japan, Korea and East Asia, expanding into Latin America and Africa. Today, approximately 550 Maryknoll priests and brothers work in missions around the world, joined by the independent Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic (founded 1920) and the Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Among activities, the order owns Orbis Books, a publishing house specializing in books devoted to missions and international understanding.

After meeting with the pope, Price traveled to Lourdes, in France, to the shrine of St. Bernadette, where he reported a religious experience that would affect the rest of his life. Always devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, like his mother before him, Price developed a special devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Bernadette. He went on to write two books about the French saint, “Bernadette of Lourdes” (1914) and “The Lily of Mary” (1918).

For the next few years, Price traveled the United States, raising support for the fledgling order and recruiting young seminarians. On Sept. 7, 1918, he departed for China a superior of the first unit of four Maryknoll missioners. Price’s health suffered as a result of the climate and the primitive living conditions, and he faced difficulties learning Chinese.

On Sept. 12, 1919, Price died in a Hong Kong hospital as a result of a ruptured appendix. In 1936, his body was exhumed and reburied at Maryknoll Seminary in Ossining. In 1955, his body and that of his colleague, Bishop Walsh, were interred in the crypt of the Maryknoll Seminary chapel.

Investigations of Price’s life, with the aim of canonization, began almost immediately after his death. The Catholic Diocese of Raleigh began its participation in the cause in 1947, and in 2002, the Maryknoll order appointed an official postulator to defend Price’s cause in Rome.

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