Starting a diocese from scratch in less than 6 weeks
The founding of the Diocese of Charlotte
A 14-year-old junior high school student planned to spend a lot of time in front of his family's black and white television on Jan. 12, 1972. History was being made at St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte and he was going to watch it all and save it. In those pre-VCR days, "recording" a TV show meant using a bulky cassette player to capture only the audio. As the procession began for the ordination and installation of the new Bishop of Charlotte, the boy held a small microphone near the speaker on the TV set. Hundreds were packed into the church as a man who served as a priest in North Carolina since 1934 was ordained to be the first bishop. The new bishop, Michael J. Begley, was greeted with a thunderous round of applause when the ordination ended. The student, Peter Jugis, was thrilled.
The dramatic event at St. Patrick's actually began to take shape more than a year before. Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh, working alone and in secret, combed through the archives of his diocese. Bishop Waters was preparing the necessary documents to present a case to Pope Paul VI. The diocese of Raleigh numbered 60,000 Catholics and Bishop Waters felt it was time to divide his large territory that covered all of North Carolina.
Pictured above: Bishop-elect Michael Begley, during the rite of ordination at St. Patrick Cathedral, receives the imposition of hands by Archbishop Luigi Raimondi, apostolic delegate of Pope Paul VI to the United States. The episcopal ordination and installation of Bishop Begley marked the birth of the Diocese of Charlotte on Jan. 12, 1972. (Photos courtesy of the Diocese of Charlotte Archives)
In November of 1971, Bishop Waters received word that the Diocese of Charlotte would be created. There was no fanfare, no great announcement and no press release. The bishop kept the information to himself. Two days before Thanksgiving, he drove to Greensboro to meet with the pastor of Our Lady of Grace parish, Monsignor Michael Begley. Ostensibly the meeting was to discuss the Notre Dame High School in Greensboro.
Monsignor Joseph Showfety, the first chancellor of the diocese, recalls what happened. "Bishop Waters and Monsignor Begley were driving toward the school when the bishop pulled over. 'I'm going to ask you a question. If you say "yes" I'll take it from there. If you say "no" you must never say a word about this conversation to anyone.'
"Intrigued but not surprised by the secrecy, Monsignor Begley wondered what the question was. 'Rome has decided to make Charlotte a diocese with you as the bishop,' said Bishop Waters. 'Do you accept?" The monsignor didn't hesitate and answered, "Yes." Bishop Waters simply put the car in gear and the bishop with the bishop-elect continued down the road."
The establishment of a diocese is a complicated process that, among other things, involved the transfer of church property from one bishop to another. Monsignor Showfety recalls spending several days at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh transferring the titles of diocesan cars. "The police in that office asked me if I lived there," he recalls with a chuckle.
Monsignor Showfety says the division of assets between the old and the new diocese went very smoothly. In addition to the property, the priest retirement and seminarian funds were divided equally. "Bishop Waters was better to the Charlotte diocese than he was to his own."
Priests for the new diocese were "frozen" in place when the diocese was formed. Any priest of the Diocese of Raleigh who resided in the newly formed diocese became a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte.
The priests, the bishop and others had to start a diocese from scratch in a little less than six weeks. With the Christmas holidays thrown in, it was a very busy time. Monsignor Showfety credits his co-workers from the Diocese of Raleigh with providing invaluable counsel and practical suggestions as the new diocese was getting off the ground.
Those associated with the diocese at its beginning use words like "exciting" and "awesome" to describe what life was like. There was a pioneering sense of starting something new. The diocese was also small enough for most priests to know one another. Monsignor Joseph Kerin, who served as the second chancellor of the diocese, describes the atmosphere as friendly and informal. "There was a sense of a North Carolina spirit of the Church. The lay people and the priests had a sense that they were missioners."
While there was a clear sense of mission and the sparkle that comes with being new, the diocese was cramped into a pair of rooms in the first floor rectory at St. Patrick Cathedral. Aloha Torrents, a longtime secretary in the office of the bishop and the chancery, recalls borrowing paper clips and typing paper from the rector of the cathedral. Torrents worked with Bishop Begley when he was the director of Catholic Social Services. "He asked me to be his secretary and I told him I didn't know how to be a secretary to a bishop. He laughed and told me, 'My dear child, only the office changes, not the man.'"
— Source: "Voices and Places of The People of God," by David Hains, published on the occasion of the Diocese of Charlotte's 35th anniversary.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Diocese of Charlotte was founded on Jan. 12, 1972. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the diocese and the history of the Church in Western North Carolina, we are publishing a year-long series spotlighting the people who built up the Church, the major developments over the past 40 years, and what changes could be in store for the future.
Feb. 17: "An interview with Monsignor Joseph Showfety, the first chancellor of the Diocese of Charlotte."
- History of the Diocese of Charlotte: www.charlottediocese.org/history
- Anecdota in diocesan history: www.charlottediocese.org/ministries-a-departments/archives
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