Like Most of America, Catholics Heading South

Thursday, May 23, AD 2013

Not even a month after moving down to Atlanta to start college I was asked to attend a wedding in eastern Alabama near the Georgia/Alabama border. As I piled into my friend’s sisters’ car, I explained that I was an Italian Catholic from New York City.

“Oh boy,” was the immediate response.

So naturally I spent the rest of the trip before the weeding envisioning some gentle folks in white hoods rounding me up and stoning me.

Despite my wildest fears, the most abusive thing said to me that weekend was “Yeeeewww taaalk kinda fuh-neee.” Otherwise a weekend in rural Alabama made me realize that the good folks down south, who seemed so alien to me, weren’t so bad after all.

*For the record, I guess I do talk kinda funny, what, with a lifetime of sipping cawfee on Lawn-guy-lund. 

That being said, it still took some getting used to being in an environment where practically everyone I knew wasn’t Catholic. Even though I spent the formative years of my life in the nation’s largest city, surrounded by a multitude of people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds, all but a handful of my friends were Catholic. And living in a borough (Queens) where it seemed there was a Roman Catholic Church on every corner, it was difficult to conceive I could ever live in a location where I would be a distinct minority.

That was nearly twenty years ago, and though things were already changing down south, it’s still impressive to read these kind of reports.

The story of St. Dominic’s Monastery’s southern move may be the story of U.S. Catholicism. New data shows that some of the fastest-growing dioceses in the country are deep in the U.S. South.

The third-fastest-developing diocese is Atlanta, which saw the number of registered parishioners explode from nearly 322,000 in 2002 to 1 million in 2012 — an increase of more than twofold, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Atlanta also has the largest Eucharistic Congress in the country, with an annual attendance of about 30,000, according to an archdiocesan official.

Atlanta is not alone. Charleston, S.C., has seen a 50% increase in parishioners over the last decade. Charlotte, N.C., grew by a third, as did Little Rock, Ark. The Diocese of Knoxville, Tenn., established just 25 years ago, is now the 25th-fastest- growing diocese in the nation — and would rank near the top if those official figures counted as many as 60,000 unregistered Hispanic congregants, according to a diocesan official.

Dioceses like Knoxville stand in stark contrast to former Catholic strongholds like Boston and Philadelphia, where parish consolidations, school closures and dwindling priests are the norm.

“Instead of us closing parishes and closing schools, we’re doing the opposite. We’re in total growth mode,” said Deacon Sean Smith, chancellor for the Diocese of Knoxville.

This growth is very visible when I visit my Godchildren’s parish in suburban Atlanta and other parts south as well. These parishes are literally teeming with vibrant young communities, and it’s very heartening. Not every aspect of southern Catholicsm is exactly to my taste – Church in the round is a common feather of suburban parishes – but I won’t nitpick too much. I would also agree that the insularity of northern parishes is a stark contrast to the ever-increasing Catholic south.

There’s more at the link on the changing landscape, and it’s definitely worth a read.

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13 Responses to Like Most of America, Catholics Heading South

  • Yeah, the style of Church where the pews are arranged in a semi-circle around the altar, theater style.

    Now that I think of it, I have been to Churches where the pews are arranged in a full circle around the altar.

  • Oh, gad, so that’s what it’s called… the parish I went to in Spokane did that.

    The only doors that weren’t behind the priest were through the crying room…

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  • Not just the South, but Texas as well. Given that the first Europeans to set foot in Texas were from Spain and France it seems only right that the Catholic Church is now the largest religious body in Texas.

    As a further indication of the move to the Sun Belt, the Cardinal Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Daniel DiNardo, is from Pittsburgh (like me 🙂
    If Houston had a National Hockey League team (they had the WHA years ago and Gordie Howe played there) I would be there.

  • “Not just the South, but Texas as well.”

    Ahem. Texas IS the South. And the best part of it.


  • Very interesting and heartening NCR article. It points out that the increase in the Southeast isn’t primarily driven by the Hispanic population, as it is in the Southwest.

    Encouraging. Still too hot for me, though. But the anti-Southern bias in the North is a really interesting phenomenon. It’s perfect for our age: it’s a form of prejudice based on the assumption of the other guy’s prejudice.

  • Mr. Anderson….when Mr. Zummo was referring to Alabama and Georgia.

    Texas does not fit into any preconceived category. South, Southwest, West…any of these can describe a part of Texas, but not the entire state.

    Which is yet another reason that Texas is unique among the States.

  • The South is both a cultural and geographic region. Geographically, where people grow tobacco and cotton, there is the South. (With exceptions – New Mexico grows cotton, but it is not part of the geographic South.) So East Texas is by culture and geography part of the South. North Texas and West Texas are culturally Southern, even though they are not geographically part of the South.

  • The majority of Texans live in the eastern third of the state, which is geographically, culturally, and sympathetically tied to the Deep South. The two largest populations centers – Houston and Dallas – fall into that eastern third. The city that Penguins Fan references – Houston – is every bit as Deep South a city as New Orleans, Jackson, and Mobile, and arguably moreso than Atlanta, Birmingham, and Charlotte.

    The iconic parts of my home state that everyone thinks about when they think of Texas – the wide-open spaces of West Texas, the Hill County of Central Texas, and the Old Mexico remnants of San Antonio and the southern borderlands – are, with the exception of San Antonio, fairly sparsely populated compared to Texas east of I-35.

    Those iconic parts of Texas do not represent the reality for most Texans. Instead, what they represent are the places where most Texans go on vacation.

    And, as Mico Razon points out, even in those parts of Texas, most Texans would identify themselves as being part of the South (although in a uniquely Texan sort of way).

  • Well for what it’s worth, I’m not from Texas but I and everyone else I know who lives in my area have always considered Texas a Southern state.

  • Thank you for the article. I would bet that the South is the most pro-life and has the highest rate of military enlistments in the country. My husband attended grad school in Cambridge in 1990-1991. It was hard to find a Catholic school with openings for our two boys with all the closed churches and schools in Boston. We ended up in the suburbs for that reason. My mothers hometown parish in MN is now staffed by an Argentine order and the parochial schools in adjoining cities have been consolidated. Rather sad.
    I am amazed by the growth of the Knoxville diocese. My secondary education was at two Catholic girl’s schools which are now closed, Convent of Mercy H. S. in Mobile AL and then Immaculata Prep. School in Washington DC. In 1967 time most of the private and public colleges and universities in Virginia were not coed, so I ended up at the University of Tennessee – close enough to home but also far enough away. At UT Sunday Mass was a mile walk up hill off campus in a small, formerly Protestant church. I don’t remember any classmates or dormmates being Catholic; maybe there were five Catholic gals in my sorority. One’s religion wasn’t a topic of conversation, although there was always a few loud atheists, and abortion was the equivalent of a four letter word. By 1971, my senior year, the Newman Center with a large chapel/meeting hall had opened a block from the dorms. I taught CCD to third graders who were mostly professors’ kids. When I’ve returned for reunions, I’ve been surprised at the growth and the programs offered by the Center.
    As an aside I observed that those of us who had attended all female high schools, whether religious or secular, were at the top of our classes. I wonder if that still holds true for graduates of single sex secondary education? Another blog topic.
    PS Williamsburg’s new St. Bede’s is circular – makes me think of a rail yard round house.

  • St. Thomas Aquinas in Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was received into the Church, is also “church in the round”.

    But it’s vast improvement over the “multi-purpose room” that used to serve as the parish church.

    The recently-constructed Dominican Priory attached to the parish, however, is architecturally very traditional.

Staying Rooted in Parish Life

Friday, June 26, AD 2009

I suspect that my family was hardly unique among serious Catholics in the 80s in that my parents often found working around our parish to be key to bringing their children up with a strong appreciation of the Catholic faith. When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade my mother helped teach CCD for a while, until the point where a fiat was handed down from the DRE on lent: There will be no discussion of Christ’s suffering and death and crucifixes should not be on display in any classrooms for the younger kids — that would be too scary. (I believe this was the same DRE who gave an inspirational talk about how one of her deepest spiritual experiences was cutting shapes out of construction paper. Nice lady, but not what you’d call a deep thinker in matters of religion.)

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5 Responses to Staying Rooted in Parish Life

  • Good post. One of the things I’ve done in the past few years is to reset my filters, so to speak, so I do not end up finding the heretical where it just might not be. Our parish is solid but not ideal. However, the liturgy is not jimmied with and religious education is unmistakably Catholic. I agree that getting involved can make a big difference–more than I think a lot of the “burnt” realize.

  • Yes, very good post. This is something we struggle with constantly. When we moved nine years ago, we chose a house first, and a parish second, i.e., we did what most people do and joined the parish near our new home. I didn’t think enough about the importance of a healthy parish for the ongoing formation of my family. The “problem” now is that we have so many connections with the parish — friends, school, etc. — that it would be disruptive to uproot my family for a faithful place. (There is no reasonable prospect that things will improve for the foreseeable future.) So we stay connected with friends at the parish, send our kids to the parish school, and catechize them at home, but almost always worship elsewhere. Were I to do it over again, I’d choose the parish first and then find a house nearby.

  • One more thing. Getting involved with official functions of the parish will not help. There is a deeply entrenched culture of dissent at work there (as there is throughout the Archdiocese of Cincinnati), and the powers-that-be have spent several decades honing skills to marginalize committed Catholics.

  • One thing that I remember a Jesuit (not my parish priest) saying was “We all believe in slightly different ways.” I have no problem “parish shopping” rather than taking a strictly geographic approach. I have found that a number of the leading lay people at my parish don’t live anywhere close to the church property. They’ve tried other parishes and ended up with us. On the other hand, a friend who is very conservative goes to a very traditional parish across town.
    I went to a different parish for 25 years, until a new pastor made some changes in mass times that messed up my schedule. I went looking elsewhere and found a parish that had a better physical layout (basic fact: if you are short, don’t sit in the back) and, I found, had warm, friendly people, at least in my opinion.
    Coming from the other direction, as someone who does something at Mass most Sundays, I have recently been reminded that we need to include everyone, not just the familiar faces. A friend and his wife started coming to our parish recently, dissatisfied with the pastor at their former church. He and his wife were astonished when I asked them to bring up the gifts one Sunday. “That never would have happened at [his previous parish.] They only asked the inner circle.”

  • I certainly have no objection to choosing a parish which one is not geographically in. In fact, I’m not 100% sure if we’re geographically in our parish or not — we’re on the border. It just strikes me that if at all possible, one must after choose a parish “live in it” in the sense of participating in it as a Catholic community to the greatest extent reasonable. (Obviously, if the RE program or some such in your parish really is likely to damage your kids, then not, but one needs to think seriously whether you’re looking at “damage” or “be less than perfect”.