St. Francis of Assisi breaks ground on new, larger church
Building project spurred by largest stock gift in diocesan history
JEFFERSON — "God blessed us with this rain to soften the soil for construction," noted Bishop Peter J. Jugis during a happy – albeit wet – groundbreaking ceremony for a new Catholic church in the mountain town of Jefferson on Sept. 29.
Officials including U.S. Congresswoman Virginia Foxx gathered with Bishop Jugis and Father James Stuhrenberg, pastor, to turn the shovels and mark the start of construction on a new, larger St. Francis of Assisi Church set at the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains. Bishop Jugis blessed the ground and gave thanks to God in his prayers for the project.
Foxx commented, "Having first attended the existing church in the 1960s, I know what a strong faith community exists and commend their efforts to build this new church."
ONCE SMALL, NOW GROWING
Catholics in the picturesque mountain town of Jefferson first came together for Mass years ago celebrated by traveling priests on a portable altar in people's living rooms, basements, inns and the local courthouse. As the Catholic community grew to about 30 people, Bishop Vincent Waters saw the need for a church building.
The church that would become St. Francis of Assisi had been built in 1899 originally as a Presbyterian church. The Catholic diocese purchased it for $12,000 in 1962 and dedicated it 49 years ago, on Aug. 27, 1963.
Located near the Virginia and Tennessee state lines, the Jefferson parish began as a mission of St. Elizabeth of the Hill Country Church in Boone, with priests of the Glenmary Home Missioners serving there from the mid-1960s until 1999 when diocesan priests starting with Father Mark Lawlor took over leadership of the parish.
In the early 1970s, parishioners contributed to building a basement apartment for then-pastor Glenmary Father Robert Cameron. To keep up with the growing number of Catholics in the area, Glenmary Father John Otterbacher oversaw an expansion of the church property to include offices, a social hall, meeting rooms, a kitchen and restrooms also in the basement. Bishop John F. Donoghue dedicated the new hall on Sept. 25, 1985.
The community continued to grow as Spanish Masses began to be offered. In 1990, a house next to the church was purchased and converted into a rectory. In 1994, St. Francis of Assisi parishioners also renovated the church, complete with a new main altar and altar of repose, as well as stained glass windows.
Today, St. Francis of Assisi has grown from being a mission church to having a mission church of its own – St. Frances of Rome in Sparta.
Growth in Jefferson and at the parish has been spurred by the popularity of the beautiful area close to the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail, both by tourists and by people who want to make their home in the mountains. Local Christmas tree farms that dot the area also have attracted jobs and related businesses.
St. Francis parishioners have responded to the needs in their community, participating in many ministries to feed the poor, teach English to immigrants, help mothers with crisis pregnancies, and minister to people in jail. There's also an active faith formation program with 65 people, and the parish also supports the SEPI program, a nationally-recognized lay ministry program for Hispanic Catholics.
But the growth has come with a price. The small church on East Main Street is now too small to fit all of the Catholics who come together each Sunday for Mass, particularly during the summer months, and many people have to crowd into the basement hall downstairs to watch the Mass on closed-circuit television. The basement also no longer accommodates all of the parish's ministries and classes.
BUILDING A NEW CHURCH
Plans for a new church had already gotten under way a few years earlier, prompted by two things: a very special gift, and a beautiful piece of land.
In 2006, the parish received a substantial donation of 60,000 shares of common stock – worth $1.36 million – specifically to construct a new church. It was the largest single stock donation in the history of the diocese, said diocesan Development Director Jim Kelley, and it gave the parish the push it needed to build its new church.
But the parish still needed to find an appropriate location. In 2008, they found it: 15 wooded acres at the foot of Mount Jefferson, just off Highway 221. It's near the local hospital and close to downtown Jefferson, yet the location affords the parish with beautiful, secluded views of the mountains and a peaceful place to come together to worship God.
The diocese went ahead and bought the land, and parishioners launched a capital campaign to pay off the debt of approximately $480,000. They achieved that goal earlier this year – clearing the way for the construction of their new church.
Inspiring the parish toward its dream for a new church, parishioners have built a prayer garden and outdoor Stations of the Cross on their new property – putting "sweat equity" into their new church home and not just their financial contributions. Hispanic parishioners particularly have worked hard to clear part of the property, a difficult task given the wooded terrain, and they helped to build the prayer garden.
In 2010 Father James Stuhrenberg became pastor, and he immediately set to work on addressing the parish's rapid growth and driving the building project forward.
Thanks to the stock gift and the earlier land purchase campaign, the parish now has to collect only $1 million of the total $2.9 million that it will cost to build the larger church and a rectory. Part of that will come from selling the current church for an estimated $700,000. The parish has launched a second capital campaign to raise the remaining $300,000, and $250,000 of that has already been pledged.
A 'GOTHIC MOUNTAIN' CHURCH HOME
The new church will better accommodate the swelling number of Catholics in Jefferson – which now numbers 227 registered families, double that in the summertime – as well as the parish's many vibrant ministries. Parishioners have helped to design the new church within a fiscally conservative budget, under the direction of Father Stuhrenberg and Appalachian Architecture Services, and in coordination with diocesan planning and development officials.
The 10,205-square-foot church will have a "Gothic mountain" style, said Father Stuhrenberg, featuring Gothic pointed arches, stonework and a vaulted wooden ceiling. It will be laid out in the traditional cross shape, with a seating capacity for nearly 300 people and future capability to be expanded as the parish's needs change.
"The size and seating capacity of our new church plan is being designed to accommodate our continued future growth as a Catholic community," said David Thomas, chairman of the parish's building and planning committee.
The building will have two levels, with the upper level as the church and the lower level used for classrooms, office space and a 100-plus-seat fellowship hall with a kitchen.
A signature feature of the church will be its soaring bell tower, which people will see through the trees as they approach the church on a long, winding entrance up from the main road. The main entrance will have a covered walkway, and there will also be an outdoor patio for parishioners to enjoy the beautiful mountain views in nice weather.
The new church will really set the parish on a stronger footing for the future, emphasized Thomas.
"Our new 15-acre church property will allow our parish community to continue in its progressive growth pattern along with our Catholic ministries."
Enterline & Russell Builders has been selected to oversee construction, which is expected to take about a year to complete.
During the groundbreaking ceremony on Sept. 29, Father Stuhrenberg said he hopes that the parish can celebrate the Savior's birth at Christmas in 2013 in their new mountain church home – a fitting season given Jefferson's notable Christmas tree farms. Next year will also mark the 50th anniversary of the first church's dedication, making the new church's dedication a "true blessing," he said.
— Mike Murray, correspondent
FROM THE PASTORS
Read and listen to homilies posted regularly by pastors at parishes within the Diocese of Charlotte:
- Fr. Frank Cancro at Queen of the Apostles
- Fr. Patrick Earl at St. Peter in Charlotte
- Fr. John Eckert at St. John the Baptist in Tryon
- Fr. Timothy Reid at St. Ann in Charlotte
- Fr. Benjamin Roberts at Our Lady of Lourdes in Monroe
- Fr. Patrick Winslow at St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlotte
- Watch full Masses live and on demand, listen to homilies and reflections from Sacred Heart Church in Salisbury
- Listen to homilies from St. William Catholic Church in Murphy