November/December 2016
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November/December 2016
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From Wilmington to the World
The spirit of Maryknoll co-founder Father Thomas Frederick Price lives on in his North Carolina home, especially the charming city of Wilmington
By Margaret Gaughan

The spirit of Maryknoll co-founder lives on in his North Carolina home

To walk in the footsteps of Maryknoll co-founder Father Thomas Frederick Price, one begins in the charming city of Wilmington, N.C., where his presence seems to be everywhere. From the highway marker in the heart of town that honors him as a native son to the plaque in the former St. Thomas the Apostle Church on Dock Street dedicated to the "Tar Heel Apostle" who was baptized there shortly after his birth in 1860, the name of Thomas Frederick Price cannot be ignored.

He would not be happy!

"Every biography of Father Price stresses his humility and simplicity," says Joan Pomnitz, a retired local librarian who has researched his life. Price, she notes, was a man who shunned public attention unless, of course, he was proclaiming the Gospel, which he did tirelessly throughout his home state for 25 years before teaming up in 1911 with Boston-born Father James A. Walsh to found the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, a mission society that would proclaim the Gospel worldwide.

Like Walsh, Price came to believe that sharing the Gospel overseas would strengthen the faith back home. But unlike Walsh, who focused on mission in fields afar, Price saw the importance of also proclaiming the Good News in his own state, where anti-Catholic sentiment was strong. Soon after becoming the first native North Carolinian Catholic priest in 1886, he set about traveling the state on foot, horseback or horse and buggy to minister to its 1,000 Catholics and interest others in joining the faith.

"Wherever he was on his mission journey, Father Price would stop and call a town meeting and say, 'Let's talk about God,' " Pomnitz says. People would come out of curiosity. Some feared he was the devil. But Price persisted and, though he gained few converts, he usually generated a measure of goodwill through his sense of humor and gift for storytelling.

Marion Danforth's grandfather, James Allen, was a teenage acolyte who accompanied Price on some of those journeys. "Father Price was a role model of faith for my grandfather," says Danforth, a theology professor who lives in Raleigh. "I grew up in Wilmington with the family rosary as part of my life because of the devotion to Mary that Father Price shared with my grandfather." Price, who credited the Blessed Mother with helping him survive shipwreck on his way to study for the priesthood, spent his life in prayerful communion with her, including penning daily letters to her in which he shared his innermost thoughts. "Father Price's religious fervor impressed my grandfather," Danforth says. "Helping him build up the Church in North Carolina gave my grandfather a sense of pride."

Father Price would no doubt feel a sense of pride in hearing Bishop Michael Burbidge say, "Though Catholics are only 5 percent of our population, and a little higher in the Charlotte Diocese across the state, our Raleigh Diocese has 450,000 Catholics." Half of them, he adds, are Hispanics due to the influx in recent years of immigrants, mostly from Mexico. "They bring to us the gifts of deep faith and family values," the bishop says, adding that he is proud of the many volunteers who help new immigrants find welcome in the diocese.

He is referring to parishes like Our Lady of Lourdes in Raleigh, where Maryknoll Affiliate Gail Kelley and other members of the parish refugee resettlement ministry provide newcomers with assistance ranging from finding them affordable housing to offering classes in English as a second language. Most of those immigrants come from Asian countries like Vietnam and Myanmar.

"I can't think of one parish in our diocese that is not involved in some sort of service," says Bishop Burbidge. He notes that several parishes have twinning projects with parishes overseas and within the Raleigh Diocese itself, more affluent parishes assist poorer ones.

"In his own backyard in Wilmington, Father Price would be very proud if he spent a day visiting St. Mary's parish," the bishop adds. St. Mary's was built in 1912 to replace Price's St. Thomas parish, which is now a historical preservation hall.

How thrilled Price would be to hear that St. Mary's welcomed 43 new members at last year's Easter Vigil. Both his parents were converts to Catholicism.

Price could easily see himself reflected in St. Mary's pastor, Father Robert Kus, a self-effacing, energetic man who encourages the parish community in carrying out its mission statement: "We aspire to fulfill the Gospel call to personal holiness, service and living evangelization of the community."

The statement comes to life in St. Mary's vibrant liturgies, in its mission trips to its sister parish in Honduras and in its outreach center, where Sister Isaac Jogues Koenig, a Sister of St. Ursula, with the help of 150 volunteers, daily distributes food, clothing, furniture and other necessities to poor people of the area. St. Mary's Health Center offers the poor free medical and dental services.

St. Mary's is also home to two Maryknoll Affiliate groups, one a fledgling Hispanic group ministering to newly arrived Hispanics in a local trailer park, the other, bearing Price's name, ministering to people affected by HIV/AIDS. Gabriella Hieb, who founded the Father Price Affiliate chapter, sees him as the perfect role model for its AIDS ministry. "He was a visionary, who saw the need for advocacy as well as compassionate care," she says. "He was embracing of all people."

Her words are borne out by the story Joan Pomnitz recounts of Price's ministry to Henry Spivey, an African-American whose execution for murder was the last legal hanging in North Carolina. "Father Price had met Mr. Spivey during one of his many prison visits," says Pomnitz. "After trying in vain to get the death sentence reversed, Father Price asked to spend the last night of Mr. Spivey's life with him in the jail cell." While the prisoner slept, she says, the priest spent the night in prayer and placed his cloak over the condemned man to keep him from the cold. On awaking, Spivey was overwhelmed at the kindness. Before the execution, says Pomnitz, "Father Price used a box as an altar, celebrated Mass and gave Mr. Spivey Holy Communion."

Price, who attempted unsuccessfully to establish a seminary to train priests for North Carolina, would certainly take heart that 21 young men are currently preparing at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia to serve in the Raleigh Diocese and that the Catholic Orphanage he founded in Raleigh in 1899 has grown into a Catholic Charities program of family support services in every deanery in the diocese.

Not surprisingly, it was Price who in 1918 led the first group of Maryknoll missioners to China. His mission there was cut short a year later when he died of a ruptured appendix, but his influence on Maryknoll would endure. Commenting on Father Price's legacy to the mission society, his fellow co-founder James A. Walsh said, "No one knows how many of our blessings are due to the prayers of that man." The same could well be said in his home diocese. 

View a video on Fr. Price

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