In his 19th-century book, “Catholicity in the Carolinas and Georgia,” Father J.J. O’Connell writes about the missionary region of Burke County, where visiting priests and Bishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons, vicar apostolic of North Carolina, preached at the close of the Civil War at the county courthouse, located in Morganton.
The description by Father O’Connell, the Benedictine missionary who offered the estate that Belmont Abbey was founded on, serves as an introductory report of the Catholic Church in Morganton, where St. Charles Borromeo Church now exists as a thriving community of faith.
By the end of the 1800s, the sacrament of confirmation had been conferred in Morganton, although there is no further recorded organized activity — beyond sporadic visits from priests — until the 1920s.
The first Mass in town was celebrated in a private residence in November 1929. Eight people attended. By the mid-1940s, Mass was being said on a weekly basis at the courthouse and in a private home.
St. Charles Borromeo Church was established in the fall of 1947, when the Diocese of Raleigh purchased a tract of land on West Union Street in Morganton that would provide the congregation a place to worship. The first Mass was offered on the newly acquired property in October 1947. The clergy assigned to St. Aloysius Church in Hickory traveled to Morganton to celebrate weekend liturgies.
The parish community grew rapidly in the late 1940s and 1950s, and Father William T. McShea, who served at St. Aloysius Church, was appointed the first resident pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Church in October 1950.
The present church, located at a different site along West Union Street, was constructed in 1961. As the number of families worshipping at St. Charles Borromeo Church continued to grow, the existing church space became inadequate.
By 1980, about 200 families were registered as parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church. Thanks to the leadership of Father John Murray, pastor, the parish welcomed an addition to the existing church building in 1988. Now known as Murray Hall (in memory of Fr. Murray who died in 1997), the addition included a community hall, kitchen, faith formation classrooms, and offices. The additional space facilitated new growth and the development of spiritual and social activities that are so important in our parish today.
Multicultural ministry is strong at St. Charles Borromeo Church. On Nov. 14, 1996, the Hmong parishioners celebrated with a special Mass the Hmong New Year for the first time in the Diocese of Charlotte. They also celebrated the arrival of Pe Lis, the new Hmong catechist for the diocese. Part of Lis’ job was to combine Hmong traditions with the traditions of the Catholic Church. Pe Lis is now a Deacon at St. Charles for the Diocese of Charlotte.
“I see our coming together today as a great gift from God,” said Father Kenneth Whittington at the celebration Mass. “We grow rich from each other’s cultures even as we become brothers and sisters in God.”
Today, the parish is thriving. Sunday Masses are celebrated each week in English, Spanish, and Hmong and in Latin on Friday. Fr. Ken has served as pastor of St. Charles Borromeo since 1992 and has been instrumental in helping our diverse parish grow to over 700 households.