By Philip G. Johnson, Diocese of Raleigh Seminarian
This is the first article of a four-part series on the life and mission of Father Thomas Frederick Price, the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest and a co-founder of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society.
On March 9, 2012, Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, officially opened the Diocesan phase for the Cause for Beatification and Canonization of Father Thomas Frederick Price, the first native-born North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest. In opening the Cause, Bishop Burbidge pointed out that "all of us, especially the faithful in the State in which he was born and ordained and in which he served, receive a special invitation to learn more about Father Price and his missionary zeal and spirituality." It is my hope that this series of articles will aid in accomplishing this goal.
Father Thomas Frederick Price, nicknamed "Freddie" by his family, was born on August 20, 1860, in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother, Clarissa Bond, converted to the Catholic Faith at a young age after witnessing the good example of a Catholic doctor with whom she boarded while attending school. Through this same doctor, she met and married Alfred Lanier Price, a local newspaper publisher. When Alfred, an Episcopalian, converted to Catholicism on Christmas Day in 1866, young Freddie Price exclaimed that it was the best Christmas present he had ever received. At such a young age, Freddie already understood the sublime treasure that is the Catholic Faith.
The Price family comprised part of the small contingent of North Carolina Catholics among an overwhelmingly Protestant population. Most North Carolinians held the Catholic Church in little regard and understood its teachings even less. Despite these challenges, the Price family persevered in nurturing the faith of their family, and Freddie was sent to study at the parish school where his two older sisters were teachers. When his sisters, Margaret and Mary, left to become Sisters of Mercy, Father Mark Gross began to educate the boys. Father Gross was the first priest to inquire about Freddie's vocation, and he soon learned that already by the age of nine, Freddie wanted to be a priest.
In 1876, sixteen-year-old Freddie Price left North Carolina by ship to begin his philosophical studies at St. Charles seminary in Catonsville, Maryland. A severe storm destroyed the ship off the coast of Portsmouth, but Freddie Price was among the survivors. After returning to Wilmington to recuperate, he set out for the seminary in January of 1877 and arrived safely. Decades after the tragic shipwreck and years after Father Price’s death, one of his classmates who eventually became the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston, William O’Connell, wrote a memoir entitled Recollections of Seventy Years. In its pages, we learn that shortly after the shipwreck, Freddie shared the entire story with the future Cardinal. O'Connell relates that Freddie, a poor swimmer, called out to the Blessed Virgin Mary to save his life. Immediately, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and pointed to a floating plank onto which he was able to climb until he was rescued. This event strengthened Freddie’s filial devotion to Our Lady that would last until his death.
Shortly after his twenty-sixth birthday, Father Price was ordained to the Sacred Priesthood and began his mission work in North Carolina. His initial assignments included Wilmington and Asheville before being assigned to New Bern along with its seventeen missions. During this assignment, he labored at a grueling pace, traveling a "Mass circuit" from mission to mission, often totaling hundreds of miles. One of Father Price’s zealous lay helpers, Mordecai Jones, commented that their long buggy trips were often made in mud and ice, and that on one occasion Father Price began praying the Rosary for the intention that they might not freeze to death.
In 1896, Father Price’s vision expanded from the local missions to evangelizing the entire State of North Carolina, to make "every Tarheel a Catholic," as he said. He relocated to Raleigh, which became the base for his preaching missions, established a Catholic apologetic publication entitled Truth, built an orphanage, and established a minor seminary to train young missionaries. He named this property "Nazareth," which currently houses the Diocese of Raleigh's offices and is the future site of the Cathedral of the Holy Name of Jesus.
By 1909, the desire to found a Foreign Mission seminary began to stir in Father Price’s heart, and he wrote about this desire in the May edition of Truth. Father James Anthony Walsh responded to Father Price by letter a month later, sharing with him that the idea of a Foreign Mission seminary was also important to him. The two priests met in person in 1910 at the Montreal Eucharistic Congress, and plans for a Foreign Mission seminary began immediately. With the approval of Pope Pius X, The Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, also known as "Maryknoll," was officially founded in 1911 with its motherhouse in Ossining, New York.
In 1918, after seven years of fundraising and promoting the mission of Maryknoll, Father Price departed for China among the first group of Maryknoll missionaries. Although he suffered from extreme arthritis, could not bear the heat and humidity of Southern China, and was unable to learn the Chinese language other than a few short phrases, he was still loved and respected by the local population because of his sincerity and devotion. In fact, the Chinese simply referred to him as "the holy priest," and the Catholic Faith gradually spread.
In August of 1919, Father Price traveled to a hospital in Hong Kong concerned about an ulcerated tooth and stomach problems. Suspecting appendicitis, a doctor operated and found Father Price's entire stomach to be full of life-threatening disease. Father Price lived four more days and received Last Rites from another priest who was a fellow patient in the hospital. According to a priest who was with him at death, Father Jean Tour, Father Price's last words were, "Tell Father Walsh my last thoughts were for them all, and that I died in the love of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Maryknoll." While Father Price's dream of foreign missionary work was cut short, his dream lives on through Maryknoll and his zeal continues to inspire souls in his home State of North Carolina and beyond.