Church dig uncovers past|Remains of state’s first Catholic church found

Published 10:10 pm Friday, October 9, 2009

Community Editor

The remains of the first Catholic church and cemetery in the state were unearthed earlier this week.
The dig was executed by the First United Methodist Church of Washington to clear grounds for the extension of the church’s parking lot to the intersection of Third and Van Norden streets.
At one time, the first Catholic church built in North Carolina, St. John the Evangelist Church, stood on the grassy lot on the southeast corner of that intersection.
The excavation, performed by R. Ward Sutton Cemetery Services, yielded 34 graves in the cemetery once maintained by the Catholic church. The company also identified the foundation of the former church, which was 27 feet wide and 54 feet long and extended into what is now Van Norden Street.
R. Ward Sutton, company owner, said he marked off the right angles of that foundation in the street with orange paint so that those interested could see where the front of the church once stood.
Pat Vore, historian for First United Methodist, was at the site Monday when the foundation was located.
“We found charred wood and broken slate from where the church was,” she said.
The charred wood and slabs of slate are remnants of the church, which was burned Union troops as they left Washington in 1864 during the Civil War.
The church was built after Lewis Leroy, an Irish Catholic, contributed land he owned at the corner of Third and Van Norden streets in 1823, according to historical documents. By 1828, services for local Catholic families were being held at the church. John England, the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, consecrated the church on March 25, 1829.
The church thrived until Washington came under Union occupation during the Civil War. At that time, many local Irish Catholic families fled the city, Vore said.
The city was without a Catholic church until the Passionist Fathers, a Catholic order, established Mother of Mercy parish to serve as a mission church and school for blacks in 1925.
First United Methodist has kept Mother of Mercy Catholic Church involved in the process of removing human remains from the cemetery and reinterring them at a location — paid for by First United Methodist — at Oakdale Cemetery.
First United Methodist’s senior pastor, Danny Allen, has asked that Father M. Arturo Cabra with Mother of Mercy bless the remains found in the 34 marked graves.
“We wanted to, in proper fashion, have the graves moved and reinterred,” said Dr. Rick Howdy, chairman of First United Methodist’s building committee.
The remains were carefully dug up and placed in separate wooden crates by Sutton workers. Besides bones, teeth and other remains, objects like a bottle of perfume and horseshoe were found in or near some graves.
The brick graves were marked and documented by the cemetery service, and a map was drawn to show the position of all the graves in the cemetery, as required by law. The boxed remains are being stored at an undisclosed location until they are reinterred at Oakdale Cemetery sometime next week.
According to Howdy, there will be a marker placed at the corner of Third and Van Norden streets to identify the site of the former Catholic church,
First United Methodist hopes to start construction on the parking-lot extension in two to three months, Howdy said.
The extension is part of the church’s three-phase expansion project, which includes the construction of a new family life and worship center and preschool building.