Sacred Heart Cathedral

Written By Will Schultz

Sacred Heart Cathedral is the Mother Church for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, making it the spiritual center for Catholics in eastern North Carolina. It is the smallest cathedral in the continental United States. Sacred Heart’s parochial school was desegregated in 1953, a year before the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

There was no Catholic church in Raleigh for nearly a century. During the 1860s Catholics worshipped in an old Baptist church on Wilmington Street. They later moved services to the top floor of the Briggs Hardware store. In 1879, Father James White purchased the Pulaski-Cowper mansion, where masses were held in the former ballroom.

These were only temporary solutions, and in 1922 construction began on Sacred Heart Church. The small granite church was completed late in 1924; the first mass in the building was celebrated on October 16. Meanwhile, Vatican officials were searching for a headquarters for the Catholic diocese in North Carolina. Wilmington and Asheville were the leading candidates. But Father Thomas Griffin, pastor of Sacred Heart, argued that the diocese ought to have a central location. The Vatican considered his arguments persuasive. They named Sacred Heart the cathedral for the Raleigh Diocese in December 1924.

The Catholic school predated the cathedral. In 1909, Father Thomas Griffin and four nuns founded Sacred Heart Parochial School and Sacred Heart High School. The schools moved into the Pulaski-Cowper mansion after the cathedral was built; in 1936 they moved again, to a new granite building on Hillsborough Street. The Sacred Heart schools became the center of controversy in 1953, when Bishop Vincent S. Waters integrated all Catholic schools and churches in North Carolina. The next year, Sacred Heart High School began accepting black students from St. Monica Grade School. Sports teams from other schools refused to play the integrated Sacred Heart team, so the bishop canceled all sporting events from 1953 until 1955.

Vatican II brought major changes to Sacred Heart. The Vatican II council, a meeting of the Catholic hierarchy held in Rome from 1962 until 1965, “modernized” Catholicism by updating the Church’s ancient traditions. After the council was over, Raleigh Catholics renovated Sacred Heart to make it less traditional. The original marble altar and two angel statues were removed, and the elaborate designs on the cathedral floor were covered with plain red tile. The bishop’s red oak throne was placed in storage. The priest conducted his service in English, not Latin. A few Catholics in the congregation, however, maintained traditions. For instance, even after the cathedral’s kneelers were removed, one elderly woman persisted in kneeling on the cold tile floor.

The cathedral itself changed little from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, but the Catholic Church in North Carolina experienced rapid growth. Between 1988 and 1998, the Raleigh diocese’s Catholic population doubled from 65,000 to 148,000. As of 2010, the diocese served more than 215,000 Catholics. Many of these new parishioners were Hispanics. By 2000, more than half the parishes in the Raleigh diocese offered a Spanish Mass.

Sacred Heart made a return to tradition with the advent of the new millennium. In 1998, the cathedral underwent a $500,000 facelift. Many of the renovations reversed the changes made after Vatican II. The red tiles were stripped away to reveal the original floor. The kneelers and the bishop’s throne returned. The ceiling was repainted a dark blue and decorated with fourteen-carat gold stars. Even Latin was reintroduced into the worship. Sacred Heart began offering a monthly Latin Mass in 2007, after Bishop Michael Burbidge received dozens of requests to restore the traditional service.

The cathedral’s small size is inadequate for Raleigh’s growing Catholic community. Sacred Heart can hold only 350 people at one time. Yet the cathedral has nearly 6,000 parishioners. This lack of space has led Bishop Burbidge to propose the construction of a new, larger cathedral. For now, Sacred Heart remains Raleigh’s Mother Church.