St. Julia, Siler City

One community from two

Perhaps, driving west on U.S. highway 64 and approaching Siler City, you have noticed St. Julia. Architecturally one of the most distinctive churches in our diocese, the graceful, adobe-style structure sits atop a hill, looking as if it landed suddenly from New Mexico or Arizona. The Catholic community of St. Julia is just as distinctive. Its membership is 75% Latino. On Sunday there are two Masses in Spanish, one in English; the Saturday Mass is bilingual. As much as any church in the diocese, St. Julia has felt the impact since 1988 of Hispanic immigration to North Carolina.

There has been a steady and supportive Catholic presence in Siler City since 1953, when Fr. Paul Byron celebrated Mass in the home of Mrs. Charlie Ellis, a devout Baptist. The mission church of St. Julia was consecrated in 1961, and in the next 20 years the congregation grew from eight families to 35. Rapid growth began in the late ‘80s, though. In 1990, Sister Anita Gutierrez, S.Sp.S., was appointed pastoral administrator. She was succeeded in 1993 by Franciscan Fr. Daniel Quackenbush, who would be St. Julia’s founding pastor. By 1999, when St. Julia became a parish, over 300 people were attending Spanish Mass on Sundays, while feasts like that of Our Lady of Guadalupe would draw 700. The church could seat 125.

Faced with the need for a new worship space, St. Julia benefited from gifts from several sources. Members Walter and Agnes Bunton donated ten acres of land. The Diocese of Raleigh offered a grant of $240,000 and an interest-free loan for an equal amount. Meanwhile parishioners pledged donations if they were able, while others sold tacos and tamales after Mass to help the cause. Bishop F. Joseph Gossman consecrated the new church on December 9, 2001.

Fr. James Fukes, OFM Conv., has been pastor of St. Julia for almost a year. Generous is one of the first words he uses in describing his parishioners. “There are really two communities in the parish,” he explains, “the ‘founding’ members, English speaking, who remain very involved, and very open to newcomers, and the growing Latino community, who are eager to do all they can to contribute.”

Members of both groups participate enthusiastically in the various ministries of the parish. One difference in the communities, in many cases, is economic. The Hispanics, many of whom are undocumented, work long hours for low pay (many at two nearby chicken processing plants) and are vulnerable to bad treatment and deprivation of basic rights by employers. One of the pastor’s (and his Order’s) concerns is working for justice for these workers.

As might be expected, a parish with the cultural make-up of St. Julia is a young church. Fr. Jim enjoys the many baptisms (up to 20 a month), quinceanera Masses and weddings. The pastor also feels energized by the growth of both communities at St. Julia, and the work of helping them to blend. “An important challenge,” he says, “is to make one community out of these two. That takes time and, in that sense, I think we are a developing parish.”

- Rich Reece