The history of Catholic Campus Ministry at Western Carolina University is inseparable from the history of Catholicism in southwestern North Carolina. The school that would become WCU was founded in Cullowhee in 1889 as a semi-public secondary school to educate young people and train teachers in the NC mountains. In 1929, it was chartered as Western Carolina Teachers College, colloquially known as “the Cullowhee experiment.” In 1953 it was renamed Western Carolina College, and in 1967 became Western Carolina University.
With the growth of the university came a growth in the population of the region, and an increase in religious diversity. During the first half of the 20th century, most of the population in southwestern NC was Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. In the 1950s there were only five Catholic families in Jackson County, all transplants from New England or Florida. Many came to Jackson County because of the college. One such example is Dr. Maurice Morrill and his wife, Anna. Dr. Morrill was hired as the Dean of Graduate Studies in 1951 and was the first Roman Catholic to be employed by the college.
At this time one priest, Monsignor Larry Newman, served as pastor for all Catholics in North Carolina west of Waynesville. He would come to Sylva in Jackson County to celebrate Mass once every four to six weeks. As there was no Catholic church here at the time, Mass was often said in private homes.
When the Morrills came to Cullowhee, they discovered a small number of Catholic students, mostly athletes recruited from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. Anna Morrill invited these students to meet at their home in Reynolds Hall, on campus, for dinners on Wednesday evenings. This was the beginning of any kind of ministry for Catholic students at WCU. This original group consisted of six students and the Morrills. Fr. John Loftus, who resided in Sylva as assistant pastor for the missionary region, would occasionally attend these Wednesday night meetings to offer Mass for the students.
Great things were to come from these small beginnings, by the grace of God. Fr. Loftus began to rent a barbershop in Cullowhee to offer Mass on Wednesdays. A frequent attendee was William Murphy, who developed a special report with the students and would often provide rides for them to Mass on Sundays, and take them to lunch afterwards. In 1955, Murphy purchased the land to establish St. Mary Mother of God parish in Sylva, and in 1959, he purchased a house on Dix Gap Road for use as a permanent student center. He remodeled it to include a chapel, and by 1960 Mass was offered there weekly during the school year.
Many of the early families who would help to build St. Mary’s church were employees of Western Carolina College (later University). Monsignor Newman recognized the importance of the growing college to the community and said the new parish in Sylva would serve “both town and gown.”
William Murphy would go on to help establish other churches in the region, including Our Lady of Guadalupe in Cherokee, and St. Margaret of Scotland in Maggie Valley. Mr. Murphy would later become Fr. Murphy when, at the venerable age of 80, he was ordained a priest in 1972. He became pastor of St. Margaret’s where he lived until his death at age 99. His life is subject of the book Murphy, Apostle of the Smokies, by Sr. Jane Schmenk.
Once the Catholic students at Western had a house, they needed a “house mother.” Enter Mrs. Neva Grady. Mrs. Grady and her husband William had been visiting Cullowhee since 1934 and moved permanently to the area in 1949. Mr. Grady died in 1958, and his funeral was the first ever to be held at St. Mary’s. In 1959 Neva Grady began her ministry to the Catholic students at WCU, and would continue to serve as house mother for 28 years until she retired to Florida in 1987.
During the 1960s, it is estimated that there were around 100 Catholic students enrolled at Western. In 1963 there were only four Catholic faculty members, and no one in administration.
In 1969 the house on Dix Gap Road was sold and the present house located on Forest Hills Road (behind the football field) was purchased, closer to the heart of campus. The first level of the home was converted into a chapel, with Mrs. Grady living in residence upstairs. This house remains in use as the Catholic Student Center today, with the upstairs housing the student lounge, campus minister’s office, and a small student residential apartment.
Until 1972 both St. Mary’s and the Catholic Student Center were considered missions; first of St. John the Evangelist parish in Waynesville and later of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Franklin. In 1972 the Diocese of Raleigh, which had encompassed all of North Carolina, divided into two dioceses; Raleigh in the east, and the new Diocese of Charlotte in the west. Now part of the Diocese of Charlotte, St. Mary’s soon after became a full parish with Cullowhee included in its territory. Fr. John Loftus was named as its first pastor, ministering to the students on campus as well as the broader community.
The first full time campus minister assigned to WCU was Glenmary Brother Al Behm in 1980. The Glenmary Home Missioners, based on Ohio, provided priests and lay missionaries in many rural areas with sparse Catholic populations. Glenmary priests and brothers were hugely instrumental in the growth and development of Catholicism in western North Carolina. Brother Al was reassigned by the Glenmarys in 1984, and for the next decade, various St. Mary’s parishioners filled the role of campus minister, including Carol Voltmer, and Bill and Diana Mehle. Gloria Schweizer served as campus minister from 1993-2008, later serving as campus minister at UNC Asheville. Since 2008, the Catholic students at WCU have been served by Matthew Newsome, who was ordained a deacon in 2018.
The WCU Catholic community has always been a vital part of St. Mary’s parish. In 1988, when St. Mary’s Parish Council adopted a revised Constitution, it was stipulated that the thirteen members of the council would include “nine elected members, a teen representative, a student from WCU, the Campus Minister, and the Pastor.” Part of the activities listed by the Parish Council for the year prior included “renovation of the Student Center & House,” a special dinner hosted in honor of Neva Grady and another special dinner for the university students.
A parish report from that same year mentions “a married couple [the Mehles] who are serving as campus ministers” for the university with a budget of $25,000, three fifths of which was supplied by the Diocese, one fifth from the Glenmarys, and the final fifth being raised by the campus ministers and students. That same report mentions a student intern, a “weekly prayer service” on campus attended by half a dozen students, and a 7:00pm Sunday Mass on campus attended by about 40 students, and service activities such as brining firewood to the elderly.
That report states, “The Catholic Student Center provides a haven for Catholic Students from the academic and institutional wilderness at WCU… The students can learn more about their faith through worship, Bible study and discussions on social, economic and religious issues… The student center is being used more and more by more and more students for spiritual, social and educational purposes.”
Today, Catholic Campus Ministry continues strong at WCU. The faces have changed (such is university life) but the spirit remains the same. The current campus minister, Deacon Matthew Newsome, is himself a graduate of WCU. Both he and his wife, Joannie, were involved in campus ministry during their student years. Matthew, a convert, went through the RCIA program at the Catholic Student Center in 1999.
Mass continues to be offered by the pastor of St. Mary’s every Sunday on campus during the Fall and Spring semesters. And students still meet weekly on Wednesday nights for dinner, fellowship and prayer. Service activities, small group Bible studies, sacramental preparation, community outreach, Eucharistic Adoration and retreats are all integral parts of the school year in our ministry.
Campus Ministry at WCU is a part of a vibrant campus ministry program in the Diocese of Charlotte, which includes over a dozen different colleges and universities across the western half of North Carolina. If you’d like to help support our ongoing efforts to keep the Catholic faith alive in the hearts and minds of college students in our diocese, click here to make a contribution. Thank you for your support!