Bible-Belt Catholics

With spirited preaching and conservative teaching, the South is giving the faith a new flavor

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Eight years ago, a handful of Roman Catholic families in Huntersville, a suburb of Charlotte, N.C., started a new parish. The home of their church, St. Mark, was a bowling alley. Our Lady of the Lanes, as they jokingly called it, was an apt symbol of the scarcity--and supple ingenuity--of Catholics in a region known as the buckle of the Protestant Bible Belt. Soon St. Mark was gaining a family a day. Now its almost 2,800 families hear Mass in a cavernous gymnasium as they await completion of a new church. Among the newcomers is Ben Liuzzo, 54, a financial-services manager who a few years ago moved his family from New York to North Carolina. He had thought Catholics in the area might be as outnumbered as Jews or Muslims--and that the meager church life that did exist wouldn't engage his 14-year-old son. Instead, the Liuzzos are attending standing-room-only services like St. Mark's teen Mass, complete with a pop-music ensemble that could be mistaken for one of the area's rollicking Christian rock bands. "This I was not prepared for," says Liuzzo, who flashes a smile at a recent service as an altar girl marches a crucifix past 1,000 parishioners.

Yankee transplants like the Liuzzos aren't the only ones helping fill the pews in the Charlotte diocese. Mexican immigrants are the fastest-growing group, and Hispanics as a whole make up half the diocese's 300,000 Catholics. Thousands of Vietnamese and Filipino Catholics are settling in too. "I've wondered often how bishops in the Northeast handled the waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries," says Bishop Peter Jugis, 47, who took over the diocese in 2003. "It's exciting." It also transcends demographics: the newcomers are practicing a more conservative Catholicism than their brethren in many other parts of the country.

That more orthodox approach is proving as popular as a revival meeting. Priests and lay people in traditional Catholic strongholds in the Northeast and Midwest are distressed by a plunge in regular Mass attendance to just 30% of the registered congregation in many parishes, by a chronic shortage of priests and by the financial burden of paying off settlements for sexual-abuse cases. But Catholics in places like Charlotte say the church is being born again in the cradle of born-again Christianity--the South. The Catholic population in Charlotte is growing almost 10% a year, and the ratio of newly ordained priests to parishioners there is 1 to 7,000, more than seven times as high as Chicago's. Bishop Jugis last year blessed five new churches in the diocese.

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