Roman Catholics were present in Wilmington from an early date. Bishop John England of Charleston, S.C., visited the city regularly from 1821 until his death in 1842, celebrating Mass, baptizing infants and preacing.
Catholics did not have a church of their own, however, until Jan. 1, 1845, when England’s successor, Bishop Aloysius Reynolds, formed the parish of St. Thomas the Apostle. The Rev. Thomas Murphy, an Irish immigrant who had trained for the priesthood in Charleston, S.C., and had previously served a mission in Fayetteville, was appointed its first pastor.
Murphy’s congregation originally numbered about 40, most of them recent Irish immigrants. For a time, the parish rented space but in November 1845, parishoners Dr. William Berry, Bernard Baxter and Catherine Ann McKay Fulton purchased a lot on Dock Street between Second and Third for the sum of $797, then donated the land to Bishop Reynolds. On May 26, 1846, Reynolds presided at the laying of the church’s cornerstone.
The building was dedicated and consecrated on July 16, 1847. According to UNCW historian Walter Conser, the church was built by contractor Robert B. Wood under Father Murphy’s close supervision. Wood used the Gothic Revival style, apparently inspired by nearby St. James Episcopal Church. Instead of a central spire, however, a massive central gable and lancet-arched window held the center of attention. The building was stuccoed in 1858.
Father Murphy continued to serve the parish until his death on Aug. 18, 1863. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1862, he had remained at his post, tending the sick and dying. He was interred in the crypt of St. Thomas, where his remains rest to this day.
In October 1864, St. Thomas was the site of the funeral Mass for Rose O’Neal Greenhow, the celebrated Confederate spy. Known for her piety, Greenhow had been trying to run the blockade into Wilmington aboard the SS Condor after a diplomatic mission to England and France; when the Condor ran aground, she tried to reach shore and drowned when her rowboat capsized. (Legend has it that she was weighed down by gold coins sewn into the lining of her dress.) Greenhow was buried with great ceremony in Oakdale Cemetery.
After the Civil War, the little church was promoted to a pro-cathedral when the Rev. James Gibbons, the bishop and vicar apostolic to North Carolina, took up residence there in 1868.
Gibbons — at 36, the youngest bishop to attend the Vatican Council in 1870 — remained in Wilmington until 1872. (A 24-by-40 foot addition to the church building was completed in 1870, while Gibbons was in Rome, intended as a bishop’s residence; until then, the bishop had shared quarters with St. Mary’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Gross.) It was Gibbons who invited the Sisters of Mercy to send a mission from Charleston to Wilmington to found the region’s first parochial schools: the Academy of the Incarnation (1869) for white girls, St. Peter’s (1871), a tuition-free school for black girls, and St. Joseph’s (1876) for white boys.
Although he later moved his headquarters to Raleigh, Gibbons remained closely attached to Wilmington. Supposedly he wrote the first draft of his devotional book “Faith of Our Fathers” while visiting St. Thomas in 1876. A best seller in the 1800s, “Faith of Our Fathers” went through more than 80 editions during its author’s lifetime; to date, some 3 million copies have been sold. He returned to St. Thomas in 1888 — now, as a cardinal of the Church and archbishop of Baltimore — to deliver a sermon.
In 1886, Wilmington native Thomas F. Price was ordained a priest at St. Thomas — the first native North Carolinian to enter the priesthood. Price, who grew up at St. Thomas, would go on to co-found the Maryknoll order of missionaries and would die at Hong Kong in 1919.
By the early 1900s, Wilmington’s Catholic population had grown to the point that the St. Mary Pro-Cathedral was built on Fifth Avenue, Cardinal Gibbons returned for the dedication on April 28, 1912.
In 1914, on the proposal of the Rev. Christopher Dennen, St. Thomas the Apostle was dedicated to the service of African-American Catholics. Mother Katherine Drexel of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who took ministry to African Americans as a mission, arranged through intermediaries to donate $12,000 to ensure that St. Thomas would be made available to Wilmington’s black Catholics, rather than being sold to pay for St. Mary’s construction. (Mother Drexel was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000.)
In 1917, the Rev. Charles B. Winckler of the Josephites, an order devoted to service to African Americans, was named pastor. Josephites w0uld serve at St. Thomas for many years to come. The parish operated a number of schools aimed at the black community, including a nursery and day care, founded in 1952, which survived until 1999. A number of African-American nuns of the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary served the schools until 1990.
In November 1966, a fire severely damaged the interior of St. Thomas Church. Shortly afterward, in line with a church decision to promote desegregation, the St. Mary and St. Thomas parishes were merged, leaving the historic church building at 208 Dock St., Wilmington [Map this], in a form of limbo. For a time, it appeared that it might be demolished, but local preservationists rallied to its cause.
In 1979, the St. Thomas building was formally deconsecrated. In 1982, the title to the building and land passed to the non-profit St. Thomas Preservation Society. The building was the focus of the St. Thomas Celebration, a winter arts festival celebrated for several years in the early 1980s. Today the former church is operated as St. Thomas Preservation Hall, a facility available for weddings, receptions, musical recitals and other events. It underwent a major renovation in 2004.
Date posted: March 12, 2010
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