The year is 1912 and amidst these national and international headlines, the small Catholic Parish of Immaculate Conception begins in Hendersonville, North Carolina, with Father Peter Marion as pastor. After years of celebrating Mass in private homes whenever a missionary priest from Asheville could arrive, the small Catholic community of Hendersonville would have its own church.
On land donated by Samuel Johnston, a Hendersonville merchant, a small white clapboard church was erected on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Church Street. Featuring a spire that rose toward the heavens, this little church could seat no more than 50-75 people in its simple wooden pews, had no heat, and only 19 faith-filled and courageous members. The first Mass was celebrated on August 25, 1912, and attended by almost the entire congregation.
Though small in numbers, the congregation had a wealth of spirit, determination, and faith in God and one another. In the summer months, when tourists came to the area to avoid the heat of southern cities, the congregation grew so that Father Marion celebrated two Masses each Sunday, and the collections grew from "$2.35-$5.15 to $11.35-$25.35." It was through the generosity of the parishioners who donated "baskets of groceries and pantry things," that the parish was able to survive.
In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, Father Marion had celebrated "three marriages and one baptism." On May 12, 1918, Father Marion wrote, "Today's collection was $6.60. Two soldiers were at Mass and contributed a dollar each."
Having started an Altar Society, the forerunner to today's Women's Guild, the women of the parish lovingly laundered and pressed the altar cloths. Once a month, the parishioners were asked to drop a nickel into a basket as they left the church to allow the women to purchase sanctuary oil.
In September of 1918, Father Marion writes, "Last Sunday and today the autos are stopped by order of the Government in order to save gas. The day seems solemn, quiet and peaceful. We never thought the autos made such a difference." In spite of this, father Marion notes, "Nice crow at both Masses." But that was soon to change.
From October through mid-December of 1918, "The churches were requested to close on account of the Spanish Influenza....Churches are closed all over the country. I had Mass in my house and four people attended." Coupled with the post-war depression, Father Marion prayerfully struggled to make ends meet.
Even though finances were difficult for the parishioners, they constantly reached out to those less fortunate. "I took up a collection for the orphans in Hendersonville. All people like to contribute to this cause." records Father Marion. This compassionate generosity of heart, spirit and resources was a source of unity for the Catholic population which by 1920 had reached 55 "...with five baptisms, four marriages, and eight children attending Sunday School."
After Father Marion's death on July 4, 1924, Father James A. Manley was transferred from St. Lawrence in Asheville to become the new pastor of Immaculate Conception.
Father Manley believed strongly in Catholic education, and through his efforts was given permission by Bishop Hafey to turn the rectory into a school. With the help of one of his parishioners, Father Manley was able to make arrangements for three sisters of the Sisters of Christian Education, whose Mother House was in France , to come to Hendersonville to start the school.
It was a struggle for the sisters in those first years a their only salary came from the tuition paid by the parents of the 10 students. Again, it was the generosity of the parish family that provided groceries and other needed items. By 1927, there were sixteen pupils. During this time, by request from the parents, a dress code for the students was established and continues today.
In 1927, Father George Watkins became the pastor of the parish and asked Bishop Hafey if he could have a small cottage built as a rectory behind the church. This became known as Madonna Hall. When Father Paul Termer became pastor later that year, he recognized the need for a larger school and so a large brick home, the Keith Estate on Oakland Street was purchased to become the new school. Father Termer moved back into the original rectory, and Madonna hall became a pace for meetings and the kindergarten.
From 1931 to 1944, Father Philip O'Mara was appointed pastor of the growing congregation which now numbered nearly 100 year long permanent members. Summer residents had grown substantially so that the little church could no longer seat everyone. In 1936, due to generous contributions from the community and parishioners, a new stone church with twin towers at the front and seating for 200 was built for $5,000.
In 1944, Father Edward V. Lane became pastor and began looking ahead to the future for the 15 families and 46 children who were his congregation. In 1949 when enrollment had 46 students, the Allworden Estate, a large residence on the corner of 6th and Buncombe became the new Immaculata School.
Father Lane was a visionary and an excellent manager, He purchased additional land in back of the Allworden Estate, and began planning for a school that was not a converted residence. By 1962, the 125 Immaculata students had a new building, the current school, in which to grow and learn.
Upon Father Lane's death in 1967, Father Joseph S. Showferty became pastor to 240 families and 175 Immaculata School children. He became immediately aware of two main concerns - adequate housing for the sisters teaching at the school, and much needed repairs and enlargement of the church. In 1969, the new convent, and later Friary, was built next to the school and discussions about adding on to the church were taking place.
It was decided that the new church would be designed in the style of a contemporary, L-shaped mountain chalet. Using stone from nearby quarries and featuring natural timber framing, the new church would seat 520.
During this time, Pope Paul VI gave approval to divide North Carolina into two dioceses. The new Bishop of Western North Carolina, Michael J. Begley, chose Father Showferty to become the first Chancellor of the new diocese located in Charlotte, and Immaculate Conception's then 300 families welcomed a new pastor.
Father William N, Pharr arrived at Immaculate Conception in January of 1972 and immediately began overseeing the planning and fundraising for the new church. Through the efforts of a dedicated Fund Drive Committee and the generous contribution from an anonymous donor, the $275,000 cost of the new church was reached.
Work on the new church began in the fall of 1972 and was completed in 1974, with the dedication Mass on April 25, 1974. While the church was being built, Masses were held in theaters, community centers, restaurants, and the school.
Hanging above the altar was a crucifix hand carved out of large slabs of white oak by Louis Spegel of Black Mountain. Father Pharr commissioned a wooden cross of stained walnut upon which the carved figure of Christ was hung. This crucifix hangs above the altar today, reminding the congregation of Christ's love and sacrifice for each of us. Mr. Spegel also carved a statue of the Madonna out of white oak which was positioned on the sanctuary wall of the third church, and like the crucifix, is a part of our current church.
In 1974, when Father Thomas A. Walsh took over as pastor, he continued the efforts to raise funds for a new Madonna Hall. this was to be a large brick structure attached to the school that would provide a gymnasium, meeting rooms, a library and additional classroom space. The first event held in the new hall was a farewell party for Father Walsh who had been transferred to Charlotte in 1979. The associate pastor, Father Robert Gibson also left the parish to return to his homeland of England.
Father Paul C. Wilderotter was appointed the new pastor of Immaculate Conception. As he was the only priest at the parish, he shared responsibilities with the lay congregation. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist visited the sick and homebound and aided in distributing Holy Communion to them and the parishioners. He supervised a staff of eight, and changed the parish sign to read, "A Roman Catholic Community," stressing he communal faith and service of the now 750 families belonging to Immaculate Conception.
In February of 1983, due to poor health, Father Wilderotter left Hendersonville to return to his home in New Jersey to recuperate. Father Conrad Kimbrough was installed as the new pastor with Father John Schneider as assistant pastor, and Masses in Spanish began to be celebrated for the growing Hispanic community with the help of Father Joseph Waters, a Diocesan priest.
In 1985, Father Charles Reese became pastor for one year before being transferred to Charlotte. Father Reese was succeeded by Father Joseph Kelleher who quickly became active in the life of the parish.
The Capuchin Friars came to Immaculate Conception in July 1991 when Father Kelleher was granted a sabbatical and Father Robert Salamone, OFM Cap. became pastor. These first Friars held a meeting for anyone interested in learning about the Secular Franciscans. Four parishioners were professed at that time and the number has grown each year since then. Members meet monthly and renew their Profession Promises each October.
By then the parish numbered 1250 families, nearly 3,000 people, and the church was bursting at the seams. Brother Michael Molloy, OFM Cap. arrived in 1992 and for 20 years has taught at the school, trained the altar servers, visited parishioners in nursing homes, and served as the parish Sacristan.
In 1993, Father Salamone was granted permission to begin planning and raising funds for an new, larger church. By the Winter of 1995, half of the fund needed had been raised, and Father Salamone moved on to be replaced by Father John Aurilia, OFM Cap.
By 1996, enough funds had been raised to break ground for the new church, and by December 5, 1998, the church was completed and ready for the dedication by Bishop Curlin. it was at this time that Father John Salvas, OFM Cap. was assigned to the parish and began serving the growing Hispanic population. Brother John celebrated a Spanish Sunday Mass, worked with the weekly base communities where members study the weekly Scriptures and provide prayer and encouragement to one another, supervised the Good Samaritan Program, and worked with the Hispanic community for sacramental preparation and special feast day celebrations such as, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In 2009, Father Aurilia was assigned to a parish in Florida, and Father Nicholas Mormando, OFM Cap. became pastor. Under Father nick's prayerful guidance and encouragement, Immaculate Conception took a big step into the future. The small house behind the school which had been the preschool, was torn down and in its place a new structure was built to provide space for additional classrooms and St. Gerard's House, a non-profit ministry that provides training, consultation and support for families, educators, institutions and others involved with the treatment or care of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The Grotto, an ABA preschool is also housed in the new building The Grotto is an education center serving students aged 2 to 4 years who have been diagnosed with autism. The goal of these new ministries is to enable these children to be mainstreamed into standard classroom education.
Father nick left the parish to become the Provincial of Capuchin Franciscan Friars, Province of the Sacred Stigmata, in 2011, and brother John became the interim pastor until July 1, 2012 when he left to become pastor of St. Francis of Assisi in Hackensack, New Jersey. Brother Michael left to minister at the St. Lawrence Friary in Beacon, New York.
It is with enthusiasm, confidence, and gratitude that the more than 1800 families of Immaculate Conception Parish enter the future under the sprit filled leadership of a new pastor, Father Martin Schratz, OFM Cap., from Charlotte. Serving with him were Father Robert Williams, OFM Cap., Parochial Vicar, and brother Lombardo D'Auria, OFM Cap., Pastoral Associate.
In July of 2019 the Capuchin Franciscan Friars departed and the Parish of Immaculate Conception welcomed its first Diocesan Pastor in 28 years, Fr. W. Christian Cook, assisted by Fr. Britt Taylor as parochial vicar. With a vision for the future Fr. Cook moved the parish office into the newly acquired St. Joseph Center on N. Church Street: "Along with Faith Formation and meeting space, the building will become a hub of daily parish activity. Our parish office staff will be able to work in a professional environment, all under one roof, and thereby extend ever greater customer service to our parishioners and visitors. Such an impressive building warrants being more than evening meeting space and, with this move, the St. Joseph Center becomes the face of the Parish of the Immaculate Conception."
In looking back at the 100 plus years, we remember the faith courage, and sacrifice of those early 19 parishioners, and give thanks for the leadership of the many pastors and associates who have guided the spiritual and physical growth of the parish and its many ministries. We go into the coming years as Christ charged us to..."Do this in memory of me."