Though the first Catholic Mass was celebrated in Siler City in 1953 in the home of Mrs. Charles Ellis, a gracious Baptist relative of Rudy and Katherine Dudek, it was from this humble beginning that a small group of Catholics launched what would become St. Julia Parish.
In fact, according to volume written by Wade Hampton Hadley, titled The Town of Siler City, 1887-1987, the original name of the western part of Chatham County was “the desolate meadows” and that accurately describes its Catholic population right up until the 1950s.
However, while few in number, a hand full of families including: the Dudeks, Dugans and McInerneys and others, worked to acquire several small parcels of land near the then “new” Chatham Hospital on west Third St. Construction of the first St. Julia Church began in earnest in the Spring of 1961 and was completed in the Fall of that year.
The church was consecrated by Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh in October 1961. The newly constructed church, with its capacity of 123 seats, served as a mission church covering all of Chatham County. That first church structure at 1002 West Third St. in Siler City still stands and is now the home of Chatham Pediatrics.
Because it was a mission church, St. Julia was served by numerous priests in the diocese. In those early years priests came from St. Joseph’s in Asheboro, St. Stephen’s in Sanford, St Michael’s in Cary, the Newman Center in Chapel Hill and eventually from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burlington. Long time parishioner, Walter Bunton, recalls Bishop Gossman driving himself out to Siler City one Saturday evening to say Mass. “No one had told us to expect the Bishop. He, the Bishop, just drove up like all the other priests who administered to our mission church”, said Bunton.
For the first twenty-five years the little community grew slowly. By the mid 1980’s, St Julia’s had approximately 40 to 45 families. The majority of these families had relocated to North Carolina from vastly larger parishes in northern states. The idea of knowing everyone in your church and chipping in to maintain the building and grounds took some getting used to, but this personal involvement helped to forge a strong church community.
St. Julia mission celebrated its first Spanish Mass in 1989. At the time, the church had only two or three Spanish-speaking families. One of the initial Spanish-speaking families was Luis and Marlene Rodriguez. They and their children participated in numerous church ministries and served as leaders within the developing Spanish community.
As the numbers of Hispanic Catholics grew, the little mission church dedicated itself to accommodating this rapidly growing Catholic community. In the span of a few years the growth of the Hispanic population had a dramatic impact on the life and culture of Siler City and its surrounding areas. In short order, the meager 123 seat church was filled to capacity, with many people standing outside or in the basement if it were raining.
To assist with the burgeoning church, in 1990, the Diocese of Raleigh recruited and hired Sister Anita Gutierrez, S.Sp.S, a bilingual Mexican-American, as pastoral administrator. She, along with a friar-priest from Blessed Sacrament Parish in Burlington, would administer to the growing number of Catholics who now called Chatham County home.
By the mid 1990s parish council members knew something had to be done to accommodate the ever-increasing number of Sunday worshipers. Even with three Masses the church facility could not handle the number of attendees. The community understood St. Julia’s situation. Chatham Hospital allowed us to park in their visitor lot. We promptly filled it up. Church council approved funds to build a parking lot behind the church. That filled up quickly as well. During Christmas services and throughout Holy Week, at times, St. Julia was wall to wall people and cars parked everywhere.
As the mission continued to grow, the Conventual Franciscan Friars made a concerted effort to increase their service to the St. Julia community. In October, 1997, Friar Daniel Quakenbush, OFM Conv. became a full-time pastoral administrator. Two years later, the Francisan Friars built Our Lady of Guadalupe Friary in Pittsboro, on land donated by the Schwankl family.
Starting in 1996 church members recognized the need to expand the church capacity. At some services the little church had as many attendees outside as were seated inside. Though reluctant to move from the little church on Third St., members realized that the old site would never be able to accommodate the number of attendees now coming to each mass.
The solution as to where to relocate the church came in the form of a donation. Agnes and Walter Bunton, church members for more than three decades, generously offered a parcel of land suitable for building a church just East of Siler City off U.S. Highway 64.
With a site in mind, the community worked hard to develop a plan for a new church. For the small number of families, the task of finding the resources to construct a new larger church was a huge challenge. What the community could not have planned for were the many blessings, i.e. gifts that other churches, organizations and individuals gave us. In addition to its own 3 year capital campaign among church members, churches in the Piedmont Deanery took up collections to help us. We also received several grants, generous assistance from the Diocese and two totally unexpected sizable donations from private estates.
The diversity of the church community could be recognized by the way members responded to the capital campaign for the construction project. Some families made traditional monetary pledges while others made tacos and tamales for sale after church with all the proceeds going to the building fund. Still others responded to a weekly collection asking for the equivalent of one hour’s wage from each person who was employed.
Not to be overlooked were the talents that new church members brought to the community. One example is the Lask Family. Greg Lask and his family joined St. Julia’s in the mid 90s after he had moved his specialty concrete company to Siler City. He brought a business and engineering background that was definitely needed when it came to dealing with architects and contractors.
Teams of church members traveled throughout the diocese to look at other newly completed church and parish projects. The finance committee put in many long hours developing a plan that could be submitted to the diocese to secure additional funding for the new facility.
On July 1, 1999, St. Julia became a parish and one year later a ground breaking ceremony took place to begin the construction phase of the new St. Julia parish church. Parishioners wanted the new church to convey the diversity of the parish and to welcome newcomers who might, for the first time, recognize the Catholic Church presence in the county.
The new St. Julia Parish Church was consecrated by F. Joseph Gossman, Bishop of Raleigh, on December 9th 2001.
Today’s St. Julia Parish Church can seat 450 people. Currently, more than 1,100 parishioners celebrate the Eucharist every weekend, and 80% of them are Spanish-speaking.
Once the “desolate meadow” for Roman Catholics, St Julia is now the home to the largest weekly attendance of any church in Siler City, according to Dr. Chad Seales, a college professor and author of a forthcoming book about religion and Siler City.
It is often said that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. However, a visitor to St. Julia’s will see evidence to the contrary. The parish community celebrates diversity and the richness of the cultural backgrounds that bring us together as a Catholic community in the 21st Century.
From the pastor:
St. Julia Parish community of believers continues to grow and develop along with its buildings and grounds. Our parish members still share their natural talents and spiritual gifts with which we have been blessed to celebrate God’s love and our grateful response. As pastor for the last five years, I have watched the parish community come together in similar caring ways as has been expressed since the beginnings of St. Julia Catholic Church.
May our hearts and minds and this living body of Catholic believers continue to glorify God in our midst and shine forth the light of Christ to our neighbors in and around Siler City.
We give thanks for the blessings of our first 50 years and pray that St. Julia’s prayers bring us God’s blessing in the next 50 years.
Fr. Jim Fukes, OFM Conv.