St. Mary Church and Parish has long been a fixture in Wilmington. We hope to give you a sense of this presence by exploring the history behind St. Mary.
The parish history started at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Bishop John England (1786-1842) from Charleston made regular visits to Wilmington celebrating Mass in private homes and sometimes in Protestant churches to a small group of believers. On New Year’s Day 1845 England’s successor, Ignatius Aloysius Reynolds founded the official parish. The community flourished and Father Thomas Murphy (1806-1855) was appointed the first full-time priest in 1845. Two years later he organized construction of the Gothic Revival style Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle at 208 Dock Street.
In 1868, James Gibbons (1834-1921), took up residence as Vicar-Apostolic of North Carolina and the church was designated a Pro-cathedral. He brought the Sisters of Mercy to Wilmington in 1869. Their first convent was at the corner of 2nd and Nun Streets. He bought property on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Ann Street. A convent and school were built on the property. They were later torn down to make was for the new church.
In the 1890’s, Msgr. Christopher Dennen (1855-1939) pastor of Saint Thomas Church, encouraged the formation of a new parish. Ground was broken for the building at South Fifth Street and Ann on the twentieth of May, 1908. Abbot Leo Michael Haid (1849-1924) O.S.B., Vicar Apostolic of North Carolina, laid the cornerstone. The first service was held on the seventeenth of December, 1911. Cardinal James Gibbons dedicated the building as Saint Mary Pro-Cathedral on the Twelfth of April, 1912. When the Diocese of Raleigh was created in 1924, the Pro-Cathedral was renamed the Saint Mary Church.
Mother Catherine Drexel, Mother Superior of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters in Philadelphia, gave money to buy Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in 1912. A school was established nearby and Saint Thomas Church became the first church for Wilmington’s black Catholic community. In 1916, the Josephite fathers took over the church and remained there until 1966 when a fire destroyed the church causing it to close. Today, the restored structure is known as Saint Thomas Preservation Hall of the Arts.
The Architecture – Overview
Begun in 1909 and completed in 1911, the Spanish Baroque style building is exceptional in its construction and design. The plan is that of a Greek cross, with a high dome at the crossing, and barrel vaults above the transepts and sanctuary. Twin towers with domed cupolas flank a wide gabled entrance on the front façade. The building has a rusticated granite base; the central dome and barrel vaults above the transom have a copper finish, and the small crosses surmount the roofs of the domed cupolas. Constructed without nails, steel or wood beams, the building makes use of brick and tile in a functional manner.
Side entrances to the church were added in the 1950’s and the original entrance door was cut down to allow for the installation of a stained glass window – the Last Supper. Further renovations took place in 1988, under the direction of the then pastor, Father Thomas Hadden. Gerald Allen & Associates, New York, NY were the consulting architects. Changes included repair and cleaning of the interior masonry, removal of the altar rail, increasing the height of the sanctuary floor and installation of new marble floors tiles. The pews were refinished and slate floors were laid in the aisles. The present chandeliers were installed. A new acoustic system was added and the organ was repaired, renovated and enlarged.
The Saint Mary Church building is the work of Raphael Guastavino y Moreno and his son Rafael Guastavino y Exposito, who emigrated from the Catalan region of Spain to the United States in 1881. Raphael Guastavino Moreno (1842-1908) acquired his knowledge of building techniques from the area and was an 1872 graduate of the Escuela de Arquitectura of Barcelona. His son Raphael (1872-1950) studied architecture in New York City.
The Guastavinos are nationally known for their system of cohesive construction and patented vaults. The father had patented his process for “Construction of Fireproof buildings” in 1885 and founded the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company in 1889. The Guastavino “Tile Arch System” vaults consists of tiles that are held together by strong mortar. The vault is thin, and derives its rigidity, not from its massiveness or thickness but from its particular geometric form of type of curvature. Richard Morris Hunt, McKim Mead and White, Bertram Goodhue and other imminent architects of the day sought the Guastavino firm for construction assistance. Examples of Guastavino’s work are found throughout the United States, mainly in the northeast, especially in New York City and Boston. These include: Riverside Church, the Great Hall at Ellis Island, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the Museum of Natural History on Central Park West, the Chapel at West Point. In North Carolina, his work is found in the Duke Chapel, the Jefferson Standard building in Greensboro, the Motley Memorial Chapel in Chapel Hill, and the Basilica of Saint Lawrence in Asheville.
Saint Mary Church is one of only a few buildings for which the Guastavinos were actually the architects. They also designed the altars, the terra cotta frieze of the apostles and other interior furnishings. Reverend Patrick Marion was the construction superintendent. It is of interest that the Church does not have the sound absorbent Rumford tile that was begin installed at the time on some of the New York churches. Instead, it uses traditional hard terra cotta tiles making the acoustics superb for music.*
Raphael Guastavino, Sr.
In 1994, the American Institute of Architects selected Saint Mary Church as one of the fourteen winners of its Religious Art and Architecture awards.
Saint Mother Teresa visited our Parish in 1975
Mother Teresa at St. Mary Church
Mother Teresa at St. Mary School