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St. Mary Church, Wilmington, Celebrates Centenary

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On Friday, April 13, 2012, St. Mary Parish in Wilmington marked its 100th anniversary with a Mass celebrated by the Most Reverend Michael F. Burbidge, Bishop of Raleigh. On the same evening, the Bishop also bestowed the Sacrament of Confirmation on 33 candidates.

Wilmington’s official Catholic presence began with the 1820 organization of the Charleston Diocese under Bishop John England. He visited Wilmington regularly from 1821 to 1843. The small community of believers flourished. They were characterized by merchants, mariners, rich and poor, free people and slaves. They appealed to England's successor Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds D.D., to officially establish a parish and in 1845, The Rev. Thomas Murphy V. F. (1806-1863) was appointed to be the full time priest in Wilmington. Under his supervision the Gothic Revival style Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle was constructed by 1847.

Christopher Dennen (1855-1939), a pastor of St. Thomas Church, encouraged the formation of a new parish in the 1890s. Ground was broken for the Saint Mary Church on May 20, 1908. On April 28, 1912, Saint Mary was dedicated St. Mary Pro-Cathedral by Cardinal Gibbons, who kept a continued interest in Wilmington. (The “pro-Cathedral” designation would be dropped in 1925, after Raleigh became the seat of the Diocese and Sacred Heart its cathedral.) St. Thomas Parish closed in 1966 and merged with St. Mary Parish. The church, designed by Raphael Guastavino, has become an architectural landmark in Wilmington. On December 8, 2005, the Diocese of Raleigh designated St. Mary Church as a Shrine.

Among the many present for the anniversary was Sister Anne Bayart, S.U., Superior General of the Sisters of St. Ursula, visiting from Tours, France, as well as Sister Rosemary MacNamara, S.U., Campus Minister at UNC-Wilmington; Sr. Marion McGillicuddy, S.U.; and Sr. Mary Isaac Koenig, S.U., founder and director of the St. Mary-Tileston Outreach Center. 

Sr. Mary Isaac described the celebration as “recognizing the blessing of an incredibly beautiful piece of architecture, but also celebrating people. Present were a good number of our elders, who for many decades have both spiritually and financially maintained St. Mary’s.  During Eucharist our Bishop confirmed over two dozen young people and encouraged them to carry on the torch lit by previous generations, including Father Price.  And then there were the children, many of Hispanic descent, who are a visual reminder that this Parish Community has always nurtured the immigrant.

“And all this took place in an ambience of 500 beautiful red roses and music and song rendered by our four choirs: Gospel, Latino, Contemporary and Renaissance, assisted by a brass ensemble that simply drew generations together in praise of the Risen Lord.”

Father Robert J. Kus, Pastor of St. Mary, concurred in speaking about the reason for the celebration. “Although the Centennial celebration of St. Mary Church specifically commemorates the blessing of the church by Cardinal Gibbons in April of 1912,” he said, “we are using this occasion to remember the strengths for which St. Mary Parish is noted. These strengths are: welcoming the stranger (especially immigrants); educating youth; serving the poor; championing human rights for all people; and engaging in missionary work on the Cape Fear Coast as well as in Honduras.

In his homily, Bishop Burbidge told parishioners, “Your parish history clearly explains the many reasons you are a special gift to me and to our entire Diocese. Through all the changes of the last century, St. Mary Parish has (1) faithfully served the religious needs of Catholics and other faith denominations throughout the Cape Fear Coast; (2) you are also known for your great commitment to Catholic education and faith formation on every level. Your parish school traces its origins back more than 140 years and, under various names, has provided solid Catholic education and formation to thousands of students; (3) From its beginning and to the present day, St. Mary Parish has served as a safe haven to the immigrant and upheld the dignity of all persons; (4) Of course, you are noted far and wide for your care for the poor, the needy and the downtrodden of society; (5) and your social outreach and health care center make the parish a beacon of hope to all those in need. I commend Fr. Kus, Sr. Isaac, her countless volunteers and all of you for fulfilling the theme of your recent campaign: 'Serving God by Serving Others.'”

A reception followed the Mass.

View photo gallery

Read Bishop Burbidge’s homily

Above: Parishioners attending the 100th anniversary Mass of the dedication of St. Mary Church in Wilmington on April 13. (Click photo to view larger.)

Above: Bishop Michael F. Burbidge bestowing the Sacrament of Confirmation during the Anniversary Mass. (Click photo to view larger.)

Above: Bishop Burbidge and Father Robert J. Kus, Pastor of St. Mary Church, with 33 Confirmandi. (Click photo to view larger.)