The Catholic Church in the United States has its roots in the South.
The first recorded Mass in the continental U.S. is said to have been celebrated in the mid-16th century by priests who accompanied Spanish settlers and soldiers to Florida.
Through the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish priests established missions in Florida and Texas, while Spanish explorers and settlers established Catholic communities in South Carolina and Georgia. The French settled Louisiana in the late 17th century, making Catholicism that region’s dominant religion.
But as the English consolidated their colonies in North America, and after the United States was founded and expanded, the South became overwhelmingly Protestant. The Northeast and Midwest, meanwhile, turned into Catholic strongholds with the waves of European immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Today, the Catholic Church, with its old ethnic parishes, schools and universities, still has a strong visible presence in the Northeast and Midwest, and the South remains predominantly Protestant, with an evangelical and Southern Baptist flavor. However, the demographics in those regions are changing, driven by internal migration and immigration from countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The South — made up of 55 dioceses across 16 states and the District of Columbia — today has more than one-fourth of the country’s self-identified Catholic population, which marks a 27-percent growth from the 1970s, when only 16 percent of Catholics in the United States lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Many of the fastest growing dioceses in the country are in the South, concentrated in areas such as Atlanta, Houston, the Carolinas, Knoxville, Tennessee, and other places where a strong local economy has attracted Catholics seeking job opportunities and a better quality of life.
The growing Catholic population in the South is welcomed by the region’s bishops, even as those greater numbers also mean church leaders are being challenged to build new parishes, infrastructure, ordain priests and institute new pastoral programs and approaches to meet the growing demand.
“If the Church were a different type of institution, it would be moving some of its resources to the South,” said Mark Gray, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
Gray told Our Sunday Visitor that the Catholic Church’s growth in the South shows no sign of weakening anytime soon.
“We’re still seeing some of the same dynamic factors at play here,” Gray said. “This is an attractive place to work and to live for young Catholics and for immigrants. Nothing about that has changed in recent years.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study, the South is still strongly Protestant. Large shares of American Protestantism’s three main traditions — 62 percent of black Protestants, 49 percent of evangelicals and 37 percent of mainline Protestants — live in the region. Catholics account for 15 percent of the South’s total population.
But even so, the South’s Catholic population is growing at a rapid clip. In just seven years — from 2007 to 2014 — the country’s share of Catholics living in the South grew by three percentage points, from 24 to 27 percent.
“The South is definitely an area of growth for the Catholic Church,” Gray said. “Historically, it wasn’t. It was a region dominated by Protestants. But with migration from what some people would call the Rust Belt in the Midwest and Northeast, coupled with immigration into the Sun Belt, you’re seeing a lot of this growth in the Catholic population.”
The demographic trend is especially evident in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, where the Catholic population grew by more than 667,600 between 2007 and 2014, according to CARA figures.
Over the last 20 years, the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which Pope St. John Paul II elevated to an archdiocese in December 2004, has doubled to about 1.4 million officially registered Catholics.
“And we’re probably a lot more than that. The numbers keep growing,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston, told OSV. Since he became the archbishop 10 years ago, Cardinal DiNardo said he has dedicated 27 new church buildings.
“A lot of them were already-existing parishes that needed new, larger church buildings with more space. I’ve also opened up two new parishes,” he said.
In the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina, Msgr. David Brockman, the vicar general, estimated there has been about a 20 percent increase in the Catholic population over the last 10 years. Twelve new parishes have been dedicated during that time, and two new parishes will be built soon.
“We’re looking to expand in other parishes as well that have basically outgrown their facilities,” Msgr. Brockman said. “There is one parish approaching 6,000 families that we will eventually split off and form a new parish.”
Msgr. Brockman added that the diocese is also in the process of building a new cathedral. He said the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral — a groundbreaking ceremony was held in January 2015 — will replace a 300-seat facility that celebrates 11 Masses on Sunday — eight in English and three in Spanish.
“Our growth has been amazing, quite frankly,” Msgr. Brockman said. “And forecasts show that it will continue.”
The Diocese of Knoxville, Tennessee, is also building a new cathedral, which is on track to be dedicated in the spring of 2018, symbolizing the fact that the diocese is one of the fastest growing in the country, said Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville.
“When we were founded in 1988, we were less than 2 percent of the total population with about 33,000 Catholics,” Bishop Stika said. “Now we’re about 70,000-plus, and that could be 110,000 if you count those who are not registered, and those are mostly Latinos.”
Whereas the Church in the Northeast and Midwest has historically been comprised mainly of white European immigrants and their descendants, the Catholic community in the South increasingly has a Hispanic and international face.
According to the Pew Research Center, 33 percent of Hispanic Catholics in the United States live in the South, and they make up 42 percent of Catholics in the South. In Texas, roughly 7 in 10 Catholics — about 72 percent — are Hispanic.
Since the 1980s, waves of Catholic immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America have settled in the South. They have been joined recently by Catholics from Vietnam, the Philippines, Africa and elsewhere.
In east Tennessee, Latin American Catholics, who make up 30 percent of the local Catholic population, worship at Mass with recent migrants from Vietnam, the Philippines, the Middle East, Burundi and Kenya, said Father David Boettner, vicar general for the Diocese of Knoxville.
“Even though it’s east Tennessee, it’s a pretty diverse area,” Father Boettner said.
In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal DiNardo estimated there are about 160,000 Filipino Catholics and 30,000 Vietnamese Catholics, and he said those numbers are growing.
“We are watching an enrichment to our diocese by people of the Catholic Faith from all over the world,” Cardinal DiNardo said. “You go out to our congregations on Sundays and it looks like the United Nations.”
Ginger Vislocky, a New York transplant who lives in Kennesaw, Georgia, located in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, says she often sees several parishioners at Sunday Mass dressed in traditional African garb.
“It’s gorgeous,” Vislocky said. “And nobody looks at them other than as Catholic brothers and sisters. There is no sense of racism. It’s just, we’re all together.”
The growing Hispanic, Spanish-speaking Catholic population has prompted many Southern dioceses to craft new evangelization and pastoral outreach initiatives, including offering Masses in Spanish.
Engaging that population is especially important in the South because if the Catholic Church does not reach out to those new immigrants, their Protestant neighbors will.
“Say you’re a migrant worker coming into a Southern state to work in agriculture,” Gray said. “You’re Catholic, and there might not be a parish to serve you where you are, but there well may be an evangelical church that’s nearby that reaches out to you. Some of the losses we see among Hispanic Catholics, especially immigrant Catholics, come in areas of the South where there are no Catholic institutions.”
The Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, attributes much of its recent growth to immigration. In the last 10 years, the Hispanic population there has more than doubled, while the Asian community has grown as well.
Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond said the diocese sends its seminarians to Latin American countries to learn the language, and that priests from Colombia and El Salvador, as well as religious sisters from those countries, have taken up residence in the diocese to minister to local Hispanic Catholics.
“Language is an important factor,” Bishop DiLorenzo said. “We offer a combination of social services, school services and parish services, and keeping that linguistic situation in mind to help people bridge the gap.”
Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer of Savannah, Georgia, said he also has made it a priority to organize the Hispanic Catholic community by instituting regional training programs for lay leaders among the Latino community.
“What we’re doing is training these men and women in the Latino community to act as liaisons between the pastors and the people,” Bishop Hartmayer said. “They’re bilingual and a great help to us, especially to priests who don’t speak Spanish conversationally. We don’t have a lot of Spanish-speaking priests, but we have Anglo priests who are willing to do the best they can in learning Spanish on their own through immersion programs.”
Migration from the Northeast and Midwest has also boosted the South’s Catholic population. According to the Pew Research Center, between 2007 and 2014, the shares of Catholics living in the Northeast and Midwest each fell by three percentage points, from 29 to 26 percent and from 24 to 21 percent, respectively.
“The biggest factor for migration within the country, as it is for immigration, is jobs,” Gray said. “There are a lot of economic opportunities in the South. And the weather is also not an insignificant factor.”
Father Dwight Longenecker, pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina, echoed that sentiment.
“Some of the major growing cities in the South are Atlanta, Greenville, Charlotte, Charleston, Savannah. Those are growth points in economy and culture, and that means we have a fairly new internationalism which is here,” he said.
Father Longenecker described Greenville as a prosperous city, noting that major corporations such as BMW, General Electric, Michelin and Boeing are local employers.
“I look across my Catholic congregation, and I’ll have people from all over the world, and across socio-economic lines,” Father Longenecker said. “For instance, I might have an executive from Michelin sitting next to a Mexican yard worker.”
Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, said the local Church is comprised of “a very complicated tapestry of influences.”
Said Father Newman, “The Catholic Church here is composed of old Southern Catholic families, immigrant populations, transplanted Northerners and Midwesterners, and converts, many of whom were Protestants and came into the Catholic Church.”
At the Easter Vigil this year, thousands of converts across the South entered the Catholic Church. That translates to hundreds of new Catholics in the individual dioceses, and dozens in the local parishes.
At St. Catherine of Siena Church in Kennesaw, Georgia, Vislocky, the parish RCIA director, said 25 people in her parish entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil.
“And we’re one of the smaller ones,” Vislocky said. “Last year, we had 30. When I was growing up in the North, it was like two or three a year.”
In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Cardinal DiNardo estimated that about 2,200 to 2,300 catechumens and candidates have joined the Church at the Easter Vigil. Catholic News Service reported that it was thought to be the highest for any U.S. diocese. The majority of those have been catechumens — people who were not previously baptized.
“We have a fascinating phenomenon going on in this area of the country,” Cardinal DiNardo said.
Bishop Hartmayer of Savannah said 450 people entered the Catholic Church in his diocese, while Bishop DiLorenzo of Richmond said 365 adults entered the Church at the Easter Vigil. In the Diocese of Knoxville, an average of more than 250 people every year become Catholic at the Easter Vigil.
“We have a growing, vibrant church, like the church in the Acts of the Apostles,” Bishop Stika said.
Randy Hain, a lay Catholic evangelist who grew up Baptist and converted to the Faith in 2006, told OSV that 36 people in his parish in Roswell, Georgia, entered the Church at the Easter Vigil. Every year, his parish sees anywhere between 35 to 40 people becoming Catholic.
“People are converting to the Church. They are not just moving here,” said Hain, the senior editor for The Integrated Catholic Life.
‘There is no Eucharist’
Hain said people in the South are converting to the Catholic Faith for a number of reasons. Sometimes they enter the Church because of the example of a Catholic spouse, but the Church in the South also has a distinct vibrancy and evangelistic zeal that many find appealing.
“Here, we don’t have that quiet reserved Catholicism that you might see in the North or the West Coast,” said Hain, who also believes that the South’s deep Christian culture, though mainly influenced by Protestantism, makes it easier for devoted Catholics to be open about their faith.
“If you go into a restaurant, you’re going to see Bible studies at tables. You’ll see people praying over their meals,” Hain said. “People talk about their faith here very openly, unlike in other areas of the country. That creates a dynamic for Catholics to also be open about their faith.”
Hain described a “grudging respect” among evangelical Protestants for Catholics who are resolute in defending marriage and the sanctity of life, though he added that the region’s Protestant “megachurches” aggressively try to recruit Catholics who are lukewarm or alienated from the Church.
“I think it sometimes backfires on them,” Hain said. “They may have some great music and coffee hours, but it’s very little substance. There is no Eucharist.” Many diocesan officials in the South said they have good relationships with their local Protestant counterparts, but that does not mean that there are no longer suspicions among Protestants toward the growing Catholic community in the region. Father Longenecker said Southern Catholics tend to have stronger relationships with mainline Protestant churches than with fundamentalists and evangelicals.
“They’re not as antagonistic toward us,” Father Longenecker said. “They’re not using the language that the Catholic Church is the Great Whore of Babylon and that the pope is the Antichrist anymore, but there is still a deep-seated conviction that the Catholic Church is just plain wrong.”
Despite some of the remaining tensions, the Catholic Church’s future looks bright in the South. The Catholic population continues to grow, and many dioceses in the South believe they can meet that community’s needs for parishes, schools, social services and spiritual formation. Several Southern dioceses report more men entering seminaries to discern priestly vocations, and communities of religious men and women have also been establishing new institutes in the South.
Said Hain, “The Catholic Faith is alive and well in the South.”