For a comprehensive guide to the history and artwork of St. Peter Catholic Church, please select this link: History of St Peters.
When several hundred Charlottteans, half of whom were not Catholics, watched the Rev. J.J. O’Connel lay the cornerstone for the original Saint Peter’s Catholic Church in 1851, they saw the cornerstone of Catholicism in Charlotte put into place.
“For 90 years it was the only Catholic church in the city. It’s easy to interpret this church’s role in the city in light of the name Jesus gave Peter…Rock,” said the Rev. John Haughey, SJ, a former pastor. “Since the beginning Jesus has built his church on people whose faith was rock solid. They were a century ago. They still are.”
Benedictine monks were among those early ‘rocks’ at St. Peter’s. In 1892 the Rev. Francis Meyer, OSB, became pastor. He was the first of six Benedictine monks to serve St. Peter’s.
The original building stood for 41 years before it became structurally unsafe. A munitions explosion at the close of the Civil War had damaged the foundation. In 1893 the cornerstone was laid for the building that now stands at the corner of South Tryon and First Street. First Street has since been renamed to “Levine Avenue of the Arts”.
“The structure is of Victorian Gothic style, simplified to a Germanic starkness prevalent in the post-war South,” according to Charles A. Hastings AIA, ASID, architect for the recent renovation of the church. “Victorian details such as the basket weave brick panel on the bell tower, fish scale slate roof, and just a hint of gingerbread on the steeple dormers suggest the era’s love for repeated design motifs. The Gothic pointed arch windows and brick and granite piers set the overall style of the church.”
An early benefactor of St Peter was Saint Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia. She founded Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Black and Native American peoples. Her gift of pews to the parish was contingent on a promise that they would be reserved for the “colored” people, in fulfillment of her order’s mission.
When the church was constructed it was at the extreme southern limits of Charlotte. As the city grew around St. Peter’s the character of the neighborhood changed. Empty lots sprouted with homes. Later, homes were replaced with businesses.
The church was soon at the heart of the city. In recent years, steel and glass skyscrapers have begun to tower over the slender Victorian steeple.
The Catholic population of Charlotte grew with the city, particularly in the suburbs. New parishes were established to serve the growing community. Urban St. Peter’s gradually found itself with fewer and fewer parishioners. In 1970 St. Peter’s ceased being a formal parish. Though Masses were said, the day-to-day activities of a parish stopped.
In 1986 all that began to change.
That year St. Peter’s Church regained full parish status. Father Haughey became pastor and the Rev. Eugene McCreesh, SJ, became parochial vicar. The two Jesuit priests, with the help of three members of the order who have successively resided with them, have tapped into the spiritual, relational and intellectual hungers of the growing parish and of the business community which surrounds the church. Their mission is to serve not only its Catholic parishioners, but to address the special needs of the broader civic and business community of the city.
“St. Peter’s has a long history, 137 years and counting,” said Father Haughey. “As far as we know, St. Peter’s is the oldest edifice remaining on Tryon Street. It’s a constant in an ever-changing urban landscape. St. Peters and its people are an anchor here…a rock.”
Today St. Peter’s congregation is a mixture of old and young, native Charlotteans and the newly settled, black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, white collar and blue collar people. These people have banded together to make the church a small oasis of quiet serenity and beauty in the heart of Charlotte’s uptown business district.
Changes began when a Victorian garden was planted on Tryon Street in front of St. Peter’s rectory. Parishioner Ann McKenna,
along with her sister and brothers, commissioned the garden as a memorial to their parents.
“They felt that they wanted to share this garden with the people” recalled Phyllis Herring who designed the garden. “It’s not just for St. Peter’s. We wanted to create an enclosed space, but not one that was closed in.”
This small garden was only the beginning.
The next project was the church itself. There had been many changes to the interior of the church over the years. Everything from the crown molding, to the pew, to the ornate plaster stations of the cross had been painted in a rainbow of hues.
Architect Hastings and interior designer Anne Geary of Geary Designs collaborated on a plan for the restoration of the historic building. They worked closely with the St. Peter’s historic society, who guided the restoration. They assembled the team of professionals who would bring the old building back to its former glory. Charles R. Carmichael was retained as general contractor.
“The challenge was to create a timeless interior.” Geary explained. “The day that I brought James Corpening in, the wood refinisher, I was so excited when he told me that there was a beautiful wood floor under the vinyl asbestos tile. He remembered seeing the church 20 years earlier. Today the interior carries an understated elegance.”
“The interior has been restored with a simple and warm use of natural wood window casings and beaded board wainscoting,” Hastings said. “The delightful balcony railing with its delicate Moorish arch design and the crown mold of grape vine motif has also been restored to their natural heart pine finish.
“The overall shape of the ceiling repeats the Moorish arch and, in typical Victorian electric fashion, is an intaglio basket weave pattern pressed into sheet tin.”
“Since the turn of the century, the furnishings and finishes of the church have been changed to reflect the times. Today we see the modest simplicity of natural wood and cream colored walls which frame the sanctuary for the liturgy of the Mass.”
Artist Paul Sires modified and refinished the Stations of the Cross. The altar and the lectern tables were fashioned by Michael McSwain. Oliver Thompson, who made the processional cross, coordinated the stripping and reinstalling of the pews with a crew composed of many parishioners. Richard Karnia has constructed the tabernacle designed by Hastings. Paul Ehrenberg, former Facilities Manager, built the baptismal font.
Though “restoration” was the key word in much of the work on the interior, the towering altars that once filled the front wall of the sanctuary would hardly be restored since they represented a notion of liturgy long superceded by Roman Catholicism. The 35 by 44 foot blank wall at the rear of the sanctuary could have been seen as a problem in the restoration, but to the historical society, it was an opportunity.
“The Catholic church has a centuries’ old tradition of commissioning and preserving within its structures fine religious art,” said Anne McKenna, a member of the historical society. “The parish was familiar with the frescos of Ben Long in the mountains of North Carolina. We had this huge, bare wall sitting there like a canvas, ready to be transformed. I was thrilled when the committee asked me to bring Ben here to continue the tradition at St. Peter’s.”
The result is a triptych, or three-part fresco. It depicts Christ’s “Agony in the Garden,” “Resurrection,” and “Pentecost” the visitation of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles.
The fresco, in fact the entire restoration, represents a tremendous investment in uptown Charlotte for a parish of 350 families. That expense was not taken lightly by the congregation. The parish uses over 20 percent of the money given by parishioners to the church for the poor and homeless of Charlotte. For many, the decision to spend almost $200,000 on the restoration and the fresco was a difficult one.
“There’s a quotation from a Hindu poem hanging on the wall of Mother Teresa’s places for the dying in Calcutta,” said Father Haughey. “It says, “If I have two pieces of bread, I will give one to the poor and sell the other to buy a hyacinth.’ We all have a hunger for beauty. Good religious art evokes a sense of God. Our hope is that every person who comes into this church will be moved by what they see.”
Artist Ben Long agrees. “For the true believer, it must provide a glimpse of the divine.” The fresco at St. Peter’s is Long’s fifth. He was assisted in his work in Charlotte by Charles Kapsner, Laura Buxton, Anthony Panzera, Joshua Rosen, Roger Nelson and Tony Griffin.
The restoration of the building and the creation of the fresco is only a small part of the story of the revitalization of St. Peter’s Church. The vitality of its people is the real story of St. Peter’s Church.
“There’s a drive in the people of this church and it just keeps building,” Father Haughey said.
When many Charlotteans think of St. Peter’s, they think of Father McCreesh and the parishioners who work with him to minister to the needs of Charlotte’s homeless through its homeless shelters.
“Situated as we are in uptown Charlotte, St. Peter’s has to be concerned with outreach to the poor given Christ’s words in Matthew, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of these my brothers you do to me,’ and given the homeless on our doorsteps with needs immediate and pressing,” said Father McCreesh. “Now we continue to move to other needs: low-cost housing, help for AIDS victims, and relief for folks in the mountains and also overseas. What makes our caring a real joy is acting in cooperation with our fellow Christians of uptown Charlotte. We have worked with the churches in the Uptown Options for the Poor, with Mecklenburg Ministries, and with our sister church, St. Peter’s Episcopal. I pray the spirit of sharing in Jesus’ name will always fill the hearts of our people. Charlotte has heart, indeed she has, and we at St. Peter’s are happy to be involved.”
That involvement can be seen throughout the parish. Father Haughey was the 1989 president of Mecklenburg Ministries, and a number of parishioners serve on the interdenominational group’s committees. Low-cost housing assistance comes through St. Peter’s Homes, an effort providing homes for Charlotte’s working poor.
St. Peter’s Church has a rich past, a vibrant present and a promising future. Amid this flurry of activity, there are more dreams at St. Peter’s Church.
“There’s a drive in this church and it just keeps building.”