A Brief History of the Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds, Bishop of the Diocese of Charleston on January 1, 1845, officially formed the Roman Catholic Parish of Saint Thomas Apostle in Wilmington, North Carolina. He appointed the Very Rev. Thomas Murphy as pastor of the congregation. On November 1, 1845, William Berry, Bernard Baxter and Miss Catherine McKay purchased a suitable lot for the erection of a church. The members decided on a subscription list, contributing according to their means. In the course of the following summer Father Murphy collected funds in New York and Philadelphia and with the subscription of the congregation he undertook the building of a church. Bishop Reynolds officiated at the laying of the church cornerstone on May 28, 1846. The contract called for the building of a brick structure (60 by 40 feet). Murphy superintended the construction of the Gothic Revival style building at 208 Dock Street. Although the architect is unknown, the builders of St. Thomas, J.C. and R.B. Wood, constructed a massive central gable and lancet arched windows of three lancer units in place of a tower. The church was finished and dedicated to the service of the Almighty God on July 18, 1847 under the patronage of St. Thomas Apostle by the Rev. J. F. O'Neill of Savannah, Georgia. The building was stuccoed in 1858. A twenty-four by forty foot extension of the church to the rear of the older structure was completed by 1870. It was intended as the bishop's residence. Changes in the interior of the church were made in 1933 and a fire in November 1966 caused great damage.

Wilmington's first full time Roman Catholic minister was Thomas Murphy. He was born on November 30, 1806 and he was from County Carlow, Ireland. He began his studies for the priesthood in that country before transferring to the Diocese of Charleston. He completed his studies in the seminary there and was ordained in 1836. By 1838, Murphy was stationed in Fayetteville, North Carolina and created Vicar-Forane by Bishop John England. In 1844, Murphy was transferred to Georgia and the following year he was assigned to Wilmington. All people of the community regardless of faith knew Thomas Murphy for his kind ministry. He survived the great 'Yellow Fever' epidemic of 1862 but died the following year on August 18, 1863. His remains were interred in the flooring of St. Thomas Church.

Catherine Ann McKay Fulton (1821-1898) acted first as a benefactor towards the purchase of the church lot and she is noted often in the St. Thomas registers. She is listed, for example, sponsoring children's baptisms or as an entry participant herself such as her marriage with David Fulton on August 10, 1846. Mr. Fulton and a member of St. Thomas, Alfred L. Price, began the Wilmington Journal newspaper in 1844 to further the cause of the Democratic Party. Also noteworthy, are the numbers of persons identified as the "Slaves of Mrs. C. Fulton." Maria Anna Jones (1838-1929), a former slave of Mrs. Fulton, was a life long member of St. Thomas and she is often mistakenly referred to as North Carolina's first and oldest baptized Black Catholic. We know from Bishop England's visits to North Carolina he was providing sacraments to African Americans as early as 1820.

The Rev. James Andrew Corcoran D.D. succeeded Murphy as pastor at St. Thomas. Corcoran was a native South Carolinian and remained pastor until 1868. He was called to Rome to help prepare for the Vatican Council held in late 1869 and early 1870. James Gibbons arrived in Wilmington in 1868 and on November 1 was installed at St. Thomas as Vicar Apostolic of North Carolina. In 1869 Gibbons requested the Sisters of Mercy of Charleston to send teachers and begin a school. Among the three nuns who came was Sister Mary Charles Curtin who kept annuls of their mission in Wilmington. The sisters opened the Academy of the Incarnation on October 11, 1869 for girls and by January 1871 they had begun a parochial school in the basement of the church under the patronage of St. Peter, then St. Joseph's Male Academy in 1876. The two latter schools eventually formed into one. Name changes, closings and reopenings occurred over the yaears.

In 1872 James Gibbons was appointed Bishop of Richmond and later he moved to Baltimore and was elevated to cardinal. He continued his interest in Wilmington and St. Thomas through the years and also wrote Faith of Our Fathers, a book about the principles of the Catholic faith.

Bishop John J. Keane continued in charge of the Vicariate of North Carolina until 1882 when the Rt. Rev. Henry P. Northrop was installed in St. Thomas. During his administration Thomas Frederick Price (1860-1919), son of Alfred and Clarissa Price, became the first native Catholic priest in North Carolina, ordained in St. Thomas on June 20, 1886. Price brought fame to himself as co-founder of Maryknoll Fathers, a foreign mission society.

Also from St. Thomas was William Howard Bishop (1885-1953). He founded the Glenmary Home Missioners in the United Statesin 1939.

On June 27, 1891, the Rev. Christopher C. Dennen came to Wilmington to assume his duties as pastor of St. Thomas. He negotiated the sale of the property in 1907 to Mrs. Preston L. (Mary) Bridgers, with others, to set aside funds for the building of Saint Mary Church. A few years later, parties representin g Mother Katherine Drexel, Mother Superior of the Blessed Sacrament of Sisters, purchased the St. Thomas Church building. The parish was then committed to minister to African Americans and Rev. Thomas Hayden was made pastor. The church was integrated on a small scale, the majority being African Americans. The first convert to the newly formed church was Margaret Loftin. She and her daughter were received into the Roman Catholic faith together. Father Hayden remained with St. Thomas Parish until 1915. The Rev. Charles B. Winckler, a member of the Society of Josephites, was made in charge in 1917. The priests of the Society of Josephites dedicated their lives for the advancement of all black people in the United States and in Africa. A parochial school for African American children was opened on October 11, 1911. The school was located in the basement of the Dock Street church. In 1912, during Hayden's pastorate he purchased the building on 105 South Second Street, which was renovated and used as a school. The Sisters of Mercy had opened a school for black children in 1888. In 1913, the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, then known as the Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, England, came to Wilmington and took over the school. St. Thomas High School was closed in 1939 shortly after the opening of Williston Public High School (1931) and the elementary closed in 1951. In 1952, the Handmaids of the Most Pure Heart of Mary came to St. Thomas Church and a kindergarten and nursery school was opened. The last Handmaid was Sr. Vincent who left in 1990 and Lydia Braye succeeded her as principal. Mrs. Braye served until 1999. Her sister Helen Pennington was principal until the school closed December 2000. Students transferred to St. Mary Elementary.

Like all well organized parishes, St. Thomas had its societies for men, women, boys and girls. The Knights of St. John provided insurance for congregants and the organization provided help for widows and orphans in time of sorrow and death.

After a 1966 fire damaged the interior of the Church of St. Thomas building, the two Roman Catholic parishes merged at St. Mary. Since that date the Church of St. Thomas has not served an active congregation. The building was in danger of being town down in 1970. A group of concerned community members lobbied successfully to save the structure and formed the St. Thomas Preservation Society in 1979. The Society restored the building called St. Thomas Preservation Hall and it is used for community cultural services.

Sources: Sister Mary Charles Curtin, Annals Sacred Heart Convent, 1841-1892 (The Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas). William M. Reaves, Strength Through Struggle, (New Hanover Public Library, 1998). Tony P. Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina, an Architectural and Historical Portrait (Charlottesville, VA: Tony P. Wrenn and the Junior League of Wilmington, NC, 1982). Clarendon Courier, Journal of the Old New Hanover Genealogical Society, 1999 - 2001 (Wilmington: 1999-2001). St. Thomas, the Apostle Catholic Church, 1847-1947 (Saint Mary Parish of Wilmington, NC). Church of St. Thomas Baptisms Register. New Hanover Deed Book 52, pages 198 & 207.

By
Joseph E. Waters Sheppard
2004

Photos Courtesy of the
New Hanover County Public Library
Special Collections, North Carolina Room
Robert Fales Collection

© Joseph Sheppard 2004

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