A tale of two counties

St. James, Henderson

Next June the parish of St. James the Greater in Henderson will celebrate a 100th anniversary. The first Catholic church in Henderson was indeed erected in 1908 on land purchased by “Tar Heel Apostle” Fr. Thomas Price. But the story of St. James is more complex.

The church built 100 years ago was called St. Paul. A chandelier from that first church hangs in St. James today. St. Paul would eventually move to a location on Oxford Road, where a church and social hall were built in the ‘60s.

Meanwhile, Catholics in neighboring Granville County were worshiping in Oxford, in a railway car called St. Peter. St. Peter was one of three Pullman cars outfitted at great expense in the early 20th century by the Catholic Church Extension Society. Both cars carried priests from places like North Carolina around the country so they could raise funds for their missionary work. A Time Magazine article from 1934 describes how the car was “lent, later given to Bishop William Joseph Hafey of Raleigh, N.C.

“He in turn presented it to the ‘Mission Band’ headed by Father Cornelius Edward Murphy. Because only 9,000 of North Carolina's 3,000,000 population are Roman Catholics, Father Murphy takes his car into many a section where a priest has never before been seen. From his headquarters at Nazareth, N.C. he goes out for a week or two with an assistant and a Negro cook. Besides the chapel seating 75, St. Peter contains a study, a kitchen and sleeping quarters. Often dependent upon freight trains for a lift from siding to siding, Father Murphy pays a minimum $18 for short hauls and ten full fares for long hauls, as compared with the usual charge of 25 fares for private cars.”

Its mission days past, St. Peter served the military camp at Butner during World War II before moving to Oxford. When the chapel could no longer accommodate its congregation it was demolished, its copper, steel and iron sold, and a permanent church was built. It was called St. Catherine of Siena.

By the ‘90s, northerners were pouring into the area and straining the facilities of the churches in both towns, and the decision was made to merge the two parishes at a midway point. St. Paul was sold to a funeral home, St. Catherine to a Christian congregation, and land was purchased on the west side of Henderson. For a year, area Catholics worshipped at “our Lady of the Warehouse,” a storage building without its own heating or air conditioning. In 1995, St. James was dedicated. Over the next year that facility would be enhanced by the addition of a parish hall and a cemetery and columbarium on five additional acres.

Today, as current pastor Fr. William Upah explains, St. James is growing, and includes the mission church of St. Joseph the Worker in Warrenton, administered by Sr. Margaret Gallagher, I.H.M. Fr. Upah describes an increasingly diverse congregation at St. James, including long time residents of the area, Spanish speaking families and a noticeable number of Indian Catholics, many members of the local nursing community. The ongoing challenge is this environment is “bringing people together,” he says. “But St. James – and I know many pastors say this but I think this parish is special – is an incredibly welcoming, friendly place.” He also cites the “extra mile” traveled by so many parish volunteers. A special joy for Fr. Upah is helping to work out the spiritual difficulties of Catholics who feel estranged from the Church.

St. James Church features stained glass windows representing the various churches in its lineage. Next year, the parish will celebrate the determination of Catholics in two counties who for 100 years have managed to find a place to practice their faith.

- Rich Reece