St. Matthew Church in Charlotte celebrates 25 years of diversity, spirit, faith
CHARLOTTE — A quarter century ago, Catholics in rural southeast Charlotte were given the gift of a new parish established by then Bishop John Donoghue of the Diocese of Charlotte. The date was Sept. 21, 1986 – the feast of St. Matthew, the new faith community's patron saint.
At its inception, Bishop Donoghue directed that the parish, which began by celebrating its first two Masses on Nov. 2 in a nearby movie theater, "be a spiritual oasis following the spirit of Vatican II," ultimately involving the recognition of the baptismal commitment and baptismal life of each member of the parish and the active involvement of lay ministries.
Pictured: Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor of St. Matthew Church in southeast Charlotte, speaks to youth in the faith formation program about the sacrament of reconciliation in February 2011. (Photo provided by St. Matthew Church)
Monsignor Joseph Kerin, the founding pastor who served the parish for 10 years, emphasized the significance of choosing St. Matthew as patron saint of the new parish, saying: "Matthew was called from the tax collector's table just as all of us are called from our business – our busy-ness – to follow Christ."
He loved the new church that was "started out in the middle of nowhere."
"People come together when they have nothing," he points out.
Bishop Donoghue offered to have the church built before the congregation began coming together for Mass, but Monsignor Kerin felt strongly that "you build a church first (of the people) and then you build a building."
Monsignor John McSweeney, pastor for the past 12 years, takes seriously the founding mission given by Bishop Donoghue for the parish "to be Jesus' hands and feet in this day and age, by the living stones called the people of the parish."
At its 25th anniversary, the mission of St. Matthew Church in Charlotte is by all standards a successful one, when you take into consideration the 103 active ministries available to the more than 8,500 registered families. More than 30,000 people now call St. Matthew their home parish, making it one of the largest – if not the largest – Catholic church in the U.S., not just North Carolina. The parish employs a staff of 58 people and has a $6 million operating budget.
The two pillars of the parish's mission over the past 25 years that have contributed to its success are its education and outreach efforts.
In 2011, more than 4,500 youths and 2,600 adults participated in faith formation and educational programs. There were 274 classes taught by 757 catechists. And next year's projections are even higher.
"The spiritual development of adults focuses what we do liturgically," Monsignor McSweeney said. "We have Eucharistic Adoration, our spiritual movements, the faith formation ministry, youth ministry, young adults ministry, and so on. Over the years the parish has grown through small communities. Education is first and foremost."
St. Matthew "YoUniversity" offers adult Bible studies and faith-building communities and programs. More than 3,100 adults participated in its programs last year alone. The parish also has the only paid, full-time adult faith formation director in the diocese – a new position created in 2010 to help steer the parish's educational efforts.
Parish outreach efforts are making a marked difference in the lives of people locally and around the world. In the past five years, St. Matthew has shipped more than 308 tons – 616,000 pounds – of food to both here in the U.S. and abroad. Just last month, 1,200 parish volunteers packed 285,143 meals to go to Africa. And the parish's response to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010 was monumental: $250,000.
Local charities have received more than $400,000 from St. Matthew parishioners in the past year.
"From the very beginning, St. Matthew has been involved in ecumenical outreach," Monsignor McSweeney said. "One example is our work with HELP, 'Help Empower Local People.' We're one of the founding members of that."
The parish has also teamed up with St. Gabriel Church, the Salvation Army and the Mecklenburg County Housing Authority to provide more than 60 apartments for homeless women and children in the area. The parish also provided funds to the Urban Ministry Center to hire a social worker to help homeless veterans.
"We also have a very active parish council, finance council and lay leadership, and have from the beginning," Monsignor McSweeney said. They help steer the parish in the formation and realization of parish-wide long-term strategic plans.
So what does the future hold for St. Matthew?
Monsignor McSweeney is working with parish leaders to develop the church's next three-year plan, which he says will focus on four things: "discovery, dream, design and destiny." It will take eight months to develop the strategy as the strengths of the parish and feedback from parishioners are considered.
But no matter what plan the parish takes on next, one thing is for certain, Monsignor McSweeney emphasizes: St. Matthew will continue the mission set before it 25 years ago as it "lives and breathes the Vatican II spirit."
A festival to celebrate 25 years
St. Matthew Church invites all of the faithful of the diocese to its 25th anniversary celebration, to be held from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Sat., Sept. 17. The multicultural festival will feature music, food and entertainment. It will be held on the St. Matthew Church campus, located at the corners of Rea Road and Ballantyne Commons Parkway in southeast Charlotte. For more information, go to www.stmatthewcatholic.org.
St. Matthew Church: 25 years of faith and service
– Nov. 2, 1986: First official Masses for St. Matthew Church are celebrated at the Tower Place Cinema in Pineville, with 600 faithful attending the two Masses offered that day by founding pastor, Monsignor Joseph A. Kerin.
– 1987: The first parish census in 1987 lists 237 registered families.
– July 22, 1989: A multipurpose parish center is dedicated in southeast Charlotte, for the celebration of Mass as well as for parish activities.
– March 17, 1996: Then Bishop William G. Curlin dedicates a new 1,800-seat church off Ballantyne Commons Parkway. The parish totals 2,109 registered families, doubling demographic projections for south Charlotte.
– 1999: Monsignor John J. McSweeney is installed as pastor of St. Matthew.
– 2003: A building campaign funds the New Life Center, the St. Matthew School/Education Center, a daily Mass chapel and columbarium on the expansive parish campus.
– 2011: The parish now totals 8,500 households – making it the largest Catholic parish in North Carolina and most likely the U.S.
— SueAnn Howell, staff writer