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Crossing the Tracks: An Oral History of East and West Wilson, North Carolina

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” James Baldwin

Lauren M. Green

On July 2, 2014, we conducted an interview with Lauren M. Green of the Raleigh Catholic Diocese at the St. Alphonsus Center in Wilson, North Carolina, as part of the East Wilson Oral History Project.  The interview with Mrs. Green grew out of previous interviews we conducted.  A few of our interviewees attended the St. Alphonsus Catholic School in the 1950s and 1960s.  We were unaware of a Catholic school in East Wilson, let alone a Catholic church.  To gain a little more insight into how this church was formed in Wilson and why it no longer exists as an active Catholic church led us to contact the Catholic diocese in Raleigh.

Mrs. Green gave us a tour of the facility, which is located on Reid Street across from the Reid Street Community Center and the OIC center.  The church was completed in 1942 with funds granted from Sister Katherine Drexel, who dedicated her life to work among African Americans and Native Americans, and helped to found the religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament.  In 1940, Bishop Eugene McGuinness invited the Redeemptist Fathers, a black male religious order, to form a parish for the black community in Wilson.  The church was built on the same cruciform design as other black Catholic churches in the region, however, their construction was not on par with the Catholic churches for whites.

In the late 1940s, the school was opened on the grounds in a surplus Army PX building.  Mrs. Green told us that the school and church was staffed by the black female religious order of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, which was founded by Haitian refugees in Baltimore, Maryland, in the 1830s.  It was very unusual to have black women of such religious prestige in the South, where they were usually relegated to domestic work with little education.  Part of the reason for establishing the school was to give black children better educational opportunities than some people believed they were getting in the public schools.  The school was attractive to many middle-class black families who could afford to send their children to a religious school.  Mrs. Green said that many black families were not off put by the religious focus at Catholic schools.  Many of the children educated in the Catholic Church in the South eventually went North to pursue higher education, and in their later years many came back to the South to retire.

In 1953, Catholic dioceses across the country were integrated.  This put many of the sixteen churches in the Raleigh diocese that were targeted towards African Americans in the position that they had to come together with the white churches, which in some cases was on the same property.  Many parishioners, both black and white, left the church over integration, with many blacks feeling that they were losing their sense of religious identity.

In the late 1960s, the school was beset with financial problems and a declining population.  The school merged with the white St. Therese Catholic School, which had few pupils and was in better condition.  The St. Alphonsus Catholic church remained in operation until 1986 when it merged with St. Therese on Nash Street.  Many of the parishioners as St. Alphonsus did not make the move to St. Therese, and left the Catholic Church altogether.  The current space is rented to a non-denominational church, which uses it for services on Sundays and Wednesdays.  The Tar River Region of Catholic Charities uses the house on the property, which is where the Oblate Sisters of Providence lived while they were at St. Alphonsus.

History of St. Alphonsus

History of the name St. Alphonsus

St. Alphonsus Maria De Leguori was born in Naples, Italy, of a noble family.  He joined the study of piety with such success that when he was nearly 16 years of age he took the Degree of Doctor in both canon and civil law at the university of his native city.

He had a special compassion for the poor and country people and founded the Order of the Holy Redeemer, which is now known as the Redemptorist Priest.  It was in the year 1787, in the ninetieth year of his age, that by his virtues and miracles made him famous and on this account, in 1816, Pope Pius VII enrolled him amongst the Blessed.  In 1839 Gregory XVI solemnly inscribed his name on the list of Saints; finally Pope Pius IX, after consulting the Congregation of Sacred Rites declared him a Doctor of the Universal Church.

Around 1942 the Redemptorist Priest came to Wilson and built both a school and church for the African Americans in honor of their Founder, St. Alphonsus De Leguori.

History of the St. Alphonsus Center

In the spring of 1940 Bishop Eugene McGuinness invited the Redemptorist Fathers to start a new parish to serve the black community in Wilson, North Carolina.  Father Walsh arrived in Wilson on September 24, 1940 with no church, rectory or congregation.  He eventually purchased a suitable parcel of land on North Reid Street opposite the black elementary school and community center.

In February of 1941, Father Joseph Ellison joined Father Walsh to form the new Community. The two Fathers began visiting homes to familiarize families with the teachings of the Catholic Religion.  He found one black Catholic in the area.  They held instructions on back and front porches.  Before long Father began Mass in the black community center in Wilson across from the Parish site.  Father Walsh watched the construction progress.  Bishop McGuinness blessed the new Church in Wilson, named St. Alphonsus on March 29, 1942.  A black choir from Our Lady of Mercy in Washington, North Carolina provided the music for the occasion.

In 1948 an Army surplus PX was purchased and transformed into a modern school with class rooms, offices, and an assembly hall.  The Oblate Sisters of Providence came to staff the school and they attracted the children of many non-Catholic black families.  Enrollment reached over 170 pupils.

In 1968, the Oblate Sisters found it necessary to reduce their Wilson Community from 5 to 3 Sisters.  Financial problems set in which prohibited the hiring of Lay teachers, while the school also needed major repairs.  The other Catholic school in Wilson, St. Therese’s, had very little pupils and the school was in very good condition.  During the 1969-1970 school year, the schools were merged and St. Alphonsus School closed after the two Parishes were merged.

After much talk and endless meetings the Redemptorist property was sold to the Diocese.

Today, St. Alphonsus is the Center for African Ancestry Ministry and Evangelization for the Diocese of Raleigh.

The facility is used for advisory board meetings, cultural celebrations and meetings for youth events, worship services and more.