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For Mother Teresa Catholic Church in North Carolina, a smaller congregation isn’t a bad thing

CARY, NC (RNS) – The outdoor mass at Green Hope High School is informal. People casually dressed in shorts and sandals stand or sit on folding camp chairs. At 8:30 am, it’s already hot outside.

But this group of hardy Catholics is not a second wave COVID-19 workaround. The Mother Teresa Catholic Church, technically still a missionary church, has been meeting outside or in the auditorium of a public high school for more than two decades.

Those who gathered on a recent summer morning could have chosen the air-conditioned benches of the Archangel Saint Michael, a brick juggernaut with 4,257 member families, a school, a gymnasium, a conference center, sports fields. and a columbarium. But Mother Teresa’s devotees prefer their more relaxed and intimate makeshift settings, even when they’ve had to repair an altar around a student production of “Tarzan,” the musical.

Mother Teresa’s devotees prefer their more relaxed and intimate makeshift settings, even when they’ve had to repair an altar around a student production of “Tarzan”, the musical.

“These are people who have chosen not to enter the big church because they appreciate the smaller nature of the community,” said Reverend Dan Oschwald, the pastor.

North Carolina’s Catholic population, though still small compared to many states in the North and Midwest, has exploded over the past 50 years, especially in urban areas of the state. He greeted the influx by building large churches.

The largest in the diocese of Raleigh, St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, has 4,765 registered families. But many others, like the church near Mother Teresa in Cary, a suburb of 174,721 people, are of comparable size.

Named after the Albanian nun who served the poor in the slums of Kolkata, India, Mother Teresa has 669 low-income families, for a total of 1,936 people.

Four years after the congregation began celebrating Masses at Green Hope High School, the diocese purchased land in Cary for a future church. But the families of Mother Teresa, originally the overflowing faithful of Saint Michael the Archangel, came to appreciate the simple and warm atmosphere which they lovingly called “Our Lady of Green Hope”. In 2016, she was finally baptized Mother Teresa Catholic Church.

This name was intended to appeal to the nationalities and heritage of its participants. The church attracts many American Indians and many Filipino, Indonesian, Vietnamese and other Asians Catholics. Wake County, home of the suburban town of Cary, is 8.6% Asian, according to the recent census.

The church attracts many American Indians and many Filipino, Indonesian, Vietnamese and other Asians Catholics.

“We had a hard time finding a home church,” said Anjela John Xavier, an Indian-American software engineer who attends church with her husband, son and daughter. “We have been to so many churches. We couldn’t find the connection. When we walked into Green Hope High School, we said, “This is our home. “

The Diocese of Raleigh is now celebrating 200 years since the founding of the first Catholic congregations in the state. The diocese itself is much more recent. Created in 1924, it initially covered the entire state. In 1971, the Diocese of Charlotte was divided into 46 counties in the western half of the state.

The two are roughly equal in size with around 750,000 Catholics statewide. This number includes a large number of unregistered Catholics, mostly Hispanics.

The explosive growth over the past 50 years has come from two directions: Rust Belt Catholics migrating to the Sun Belt, and a wave of Hispanic Catholics moving to the state for jobs in agriculture and construction. .

Over 20 years ago, the then bishop, Joseph Gossman, demanded that all priests be able to celebrate mass in Spanish. Today, Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama is himself Hispanic, an immigrant from Colombia.

Construction of new churches has slowed down a bit since the 1980s and 1990s, when many of the larger churches were built in major cities. Today the diocese has 80 churches and 17 missions.

One of the main reasons is the lack of priests. The diocese has 147 diocesan and religious priests, or about one priest for every 2,000 Catholics.

“Adapting to the expansion of the parish in the growing metropolitan areas of the Diocese of Raleigh, while a good problem in comparison, presents a number of challenges,” said Russell Elmayan, financial director of the diocese.

Most important, he said: “We had to take into account that we have a limited number of priests to endow new and existing parishes.

“My hope is to try to make the church grow small,” he said. “It goes against what is happening in the region. This will require the construction of more churches to meet the growing needs. “

In June, Mother Teresa broke new ground in a church building five miles from Green Hope High School. In a change from past practice, the congregation decided to build a $ 9 million multi-purpose building first. The shrine will come later. The move is scheduled for next fall.

In the meantime, in-person Masses have resumed in the school auditorium as well as outside. About 50% of church members have returned in person, Oschwald said, and he is confident more will follow. But he does not want the new community of Mother Teresa to lose its privacy.

“My hope is to try to make the church grow small,” he said. “It goes against what is happening in the region. This will require the construction of more churches to meet the growing needs. “

Brian Irving, a member of the congregation, said he liked the size of Mother Teresa. When he retired from the US Air Force and returned to North Carolina from Florida, he said, he did a bit of “parish shopping.”

He found what he called the “great Yankee churches” overwhelming.

Irving, whose wife Lisa is of Filipino American descent, said Mother Teresa’s ethnic diversity and relatively small size reminded her of the small chapels the Air Force organized for Catholics.

“I don’t mind meeting in a high school auditorium,” he said. “I like a small congregation where you can get to know people. “


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