A church in transition

Catholic Diocese of Raleigh looks to future cathedral and leader

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
The new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral

RALEIGH — As construction on Western Boulevard enters its final weeks, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh is transitioning to a new role in the hearts of the faithful in eastern North Carolina: both in location and leadership.The inspiration for a new cathedral was simple: necessity. “Sacred Heart is the second smallest Cathedral in the United States,” said former Bishop of Raleigh and architect of the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral project, the Most Reverend Michael Francis Burbidge. Burbidge served as the leader of the Diocese of Raleigh from 2006-2016. “We simply outgrew Sacred Heart, and that speaks to the rapid growth and vibrancy of the Raleigh area.”According to UNC’s Carolina Population Center, the Triangle region has accounted for 40 percent of North Carolina’s population growth. And while Southern Baptists make up the largest number of followers statewide, the Catholic Church has the largest number of adherents in Orange and Wake counties. Migration both foreign and domestic has impacted these concentrations: in 1990 fewer than 150,000 residents identified as Catholic, but that number almost tripled by the early 2010s.The Catholic boom in North Carolina meant that the 300-seat Sacred Heart Cathedral on Hillsborough and McDowell in Raleigh just simply couldn’t accommodate the demand. Currently, the cathedral hosts 16 regular service masses a week, in both English and Spanish, to serve the congregation. It was time for a Mother Church, and on January 3, 2015 the Diocese broke ground on a piece of land rich in Catholic history. The “Nazareth property” was purchased in 1899 by the first native-born North Carolinian to be ordained a priest to serve as an orphanage and it later became the first location for Cardinal Gibbons High School.Burbidge spearheaded the project for the Western Boulevard cathedral, ensuring that the clergy and community it would serve were involved. “We only would build what God’s people wanted us to build,” said the Bishop, “only what we could afford.” And the Diocese stood by that promise: construction of Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral is estimated at $40 million, and was paid entirely through donations. In addition, the Diocese returned $8 million back to community Catholic missions and $18 million to the parishes that helped run the good faith campaign.In a monumental moment of faith and transition, the church never expected to lose their torchbearer. In October, Burbidge received an unexpected call from Pope Francis that reassigned him to be the Bishop of Arlington, VA. “When I received the call, so close to completion; after 5 years to be at work, only to be transferred right before we crossed the finish line — was somewhat surprising,” said Burbidge, “But they told me the Holy Father believes your work is done, and in a way it was: all the major decisions were completed.”The Diocese has kept their former leader involved from afar, but hasn’t missed a beat. “We certainly miss him, but we have an impressive team that are still managing their projects and reporting back to the leadership committee,” said Billy Attwell, the Diocese’s Communications Director. “The way Bishop Burbidge established it was really providential that we were able to continue and not miss anything.”While construction is on schedule for completion in late May and dedication set for July 26, there is no timeline of when to expect the Pontiff to select Burbidge’s successor.”Holy week takes on a different tone when you don’t even have your own shepherd,” said Atwell. “It is a very guarded process, until they make it public – even the people that help coordinate the transition only know maybe a few days ahead of time. So, we’re always phone-in-hand, ready for the call.”In the meantime, Archbishops from Atlanta have come in for holy ceremonies traditionally performed by the Bishop of Raleigh. “The church is very wise in making sure there is still leadership available to you,” added Atwell. “We’re in a limbo phase, and we are looking forward to having a shepherd.”While it is uncertain who the next Bishop of Raleigh will be, he will take on a dynamic and growing community of faithful – in a cathedral that stands in grandeur over the state’s capital city. “It is what a cathedral was always supposed to be: a visible presence of God in our midst,” Burbidge remarked about the cathedral that will be the Nazareth of eastern North Carolina.