“Tar Heel Apostle”: Father Thomas Price spread the Faith in North Carolina – and beyond

The sainthood cause of the American priest and founder of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers is nearing the end of its diocesan phase, and is expected to go on to Rome soon.

(Left) Servant of God Father Thomas Price (image via the Diocese of Raleigh); (right) priests gather outside Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral immediately after Mass July 26, 2017 at the dedication for the cathedral in Raleigh, N.C. (CNS photo/JFlyBoy Photo & Media, courtesy Diocese of Raleigh)

The diocesan phase of the cause for canonization of Servant of God Father Thomas Frederick Price (1860-1919) began in the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina in 2012, and is expected to end later this year. Father Price was the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a priest, and he traveled around the state in a horse and buggy in an effort to make “every Tar Heel a Catholic.” He was also co-founder of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. Land he bought more than a century ago to build an orphanage was used by the diocese to build its new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, which opened in 2017.

A tribunal led by the Father James Garneau, VF has been conducting a formal study of the life, virtues, and reputation of the sanctity of Father Price. Once complete, the tribunal’s findings will be forwarded to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome for continuation of the process.

Father Garneau serves as pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Mount Olive, North Carolina, and is director of the diocesan diaconate program.  He recently spoke to CWR about Father Price.

CWR: What can you tell us about Father Price’s family background, and what led him to the seminary?

Father James Garneau: He was born in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother, Clarissa Bond, was a very devout and holy woman. She was a Catholic convert, and was disowned by her family because of her conversion. It occurred when she left the village she grew up in to live in a larger town, boarding with a Catholic doctor and his family.

After her conversion, she wanted to be a nun. Her father was irate about it, so she decided to put aside her desire of going to the convent.

Clarissa married a newspaper editor, Alfred Price, who lived in Bloomington, North Carolina. He was a non-Catholic, but converted to Catholicism before his death. Father Price would later say that his father’s conversion was the happiest time of his childhood.

Clarissa and Alfred went on to have multiple children, two of whom, Margaret and Mary, became nuns and one of whom, “Freddie,” as his family called Father Price, became a priest. Father Price knew from the age of nine that he wanted to be a priest. One of Father Price’s inspirations to become a priest was the future Cardinal James Gibbons (1834-1921), who served as apostolic vicar of North Carolina from 1868 to 1872, taking up residence for a time in Wilmington.

So, the family was very devout, regularly going to Mass and connected to the local priests.  His two sisters, in fact, before going to the convent, ran an informal Catholic school at their parish, St. Thomas. Even though Clarissa didn’t go to the convent herself, three of her children had vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

CWR: What was being Catholic like in 19th-century North Carolina?

Father Garneau: Catholics were a minuscule presence in North Carolina then, surrounded by an overwhelmingly Protestant population. There were more Catholics in South Carolina; as North Carolina didn’t have a major port, it did not have Catholic immigrants flooding in. The Church was organized in a missionary way in 1868; North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were all under the bishop of Charleston.

There was hostility to Catholics; the state constitution, in fact, had previously prohibited Catholics from holding public office. There were respectable Catholics in North Carolina society, however, such as Judge William Gaston (1778-1844). He became a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court and helped amend the state constitution so that Catholics could be allowed to serve as public officials (in 1835).

CWR: Another notable incident about Father Price’s youth was that he was almost drowned at age 16, but survived under what he considered to be miraculous circumstances.

Father Garneau: Yes. He was on his way by ship to St. Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Maryland. The ship ran into a storm off Portsmouth and sank. Years later, he related to the future archbishop and cardinal of Boston, William O’Connell, that he was saved through the intercession of the Blessed Mother. Father Price was a poor swimmer, and he called out to the Blessed Mother to save him. She appeared to him, and pointed out a plank of wood floating in the water. He clung to it until he was rescued. He was always devoted to Mary throughout his life.

CWR: Father Price was ordained a priest at age 26. What was he like?

Father Garneau: I can say personally that as a priest Father Price has always been an inspiration to me. He was a visionary, a spiritual man, and knew how to be an effective evangelist. He knew, for example, that it would be better to establish a local seminary and form men for the priesthood to work in North Carolina, rather than having them train in the north and then come south. Keep in mind that Father lived during and in the aftermath of the Civil War, which economically devastated the state. There was extreme poverty everywhere, which might be difficult for a priest to endure who was used to life in a more affluent north.

Father Price was willing to put up with poverty and to experience suffering; he also had the good manners of a Southern gentleman. He didn’t allow himself to be upset by negative comments some people would express about Catholic priests.

It was his practice to come to a North Carolina town and rent a vaudeville theater. He’d then go around town and put up handmade posters advertising that a Catholic priest was going to speak, and that they should bring their questions. Some people brought rotten fruit and threw it at him, but he’d deal with it in good humor.

CWR: What led him to purchase property—on which the Raleigh cathedral would one day be built—to establish an orphanage?

Father Garneau: The poverty in North Carolina at his time was immense. There were both orphans and children whose parents couldn’t afford to raise them. In addition to giving them food and housing, he put them to work in his apostolate. He had started a Catholic apologetics magazine, Truth, and ran a printing house on the property at which the orphans worked.

His story received renewed attention when Raleigh’s new cathedral was built. One of its stained glass windows features scenes from his life; we’ve left an empty niche (for a statue) should the Church one day decide to canonize him.

CWR: He was also devoted to St. Bernadette of Lourdes.

Father Garneau: Yes. … When he traveled to Rome seeking papal recognition of his new mission society, he also visited her family in France and stayed with Bernadette’s brother.  He spent time at her grave site with Bernadette’s sister. In accordance to his final request, when Father Price died, his heart was buried alongside Bernadette in France.

Father Price recognized her as a holy soul, devoted to the Mother of God—a great spiritual guide and a witness of the purity and innocence for which he strove.

CWR: He founded the Maryknolls.

Father Garneau: Yes. He met another priest from Boston, James Anthony Walsh (1867-1936), and they teamed up to establish the first mission society of the United States. Father Walsh later became Bishop Walsh. It was a struggle, as there was much missionary work to be done at home in the South. But the thinking was that the establishment of the society would prime the pump of missionary fervor, and there would be more missionaries for both the home missions and the foreign missions.

CWR: Father Price died in Hong Kong.

Father Garneau: He headed overseas as a missionary at age 58, never expecting to return home. He was the only priest available with experience; the others were young and newly ordained. He was the only one who had been a pastor. When he arrived, he was unable to learn Chinese, but was beloved just the same. He died of appendicitis in Hong Kong in 1919.

CWR: What is the best way to learn more about the life of Father Thomas Price?

Father Garneau: I recommend reading Tar Heel Apostle by John Murrett (available through Amazon); there is also a video by the same name about him on YouTube worth watching.

CWR: What help do you need with Father Price’s cause?

Father Garneau: I would ask people to pray for his canonization, and to get in touch with me if they wish to report any special favors granted through his intercession.

About Jim Graves 155 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.

3 Comments

  1. Given the pitiful state of Maryknoll today and the unlikelihood of it being reformed by Rome, is there any practical purpose to be served by the pursuit of this cause?

    • Dear Sol, your attitude — which is a very common one, is completely defeatest. At Fatima, Our Lady said that her Immaculate Heart will triumph, and she is neither prone to exaggeration, nor is she, God forbid, a liar. Triumph she will. In the meantime, by reflecting on the life of this saintly man, the people of today will be challenged to measure themselves by these proven heroes of the faith who showed by their lives that their faith was more than just empty talk.

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