The Catholic community of northern Orange County grew up a congregation without a home.
With roots stretching to a group of Pennsylvania missionaries that reputedly settled outside town in the 1880s, Hillsborough’s Catholics struggled to gain enough traction to find a church of their own. A small collection of 20 families hopped from homes to fields to a Churton Street loft to Walker’s Funeral Home’s chapel to the Hillsborough Elementary School gym, calling in a priest from the area each weekend to help celebrate Mass.
But their efforts weren’t in vain. A little more than 25 years later, Holy Family Catholic Church, located at 216 Governor Burke Road, boasts more than 600 families and continues to grow—a distinct community serving Hillsborough and northern Orange County.
“I think that small group of Catholics over the years really wanted to distinguish themselves and felt pulled together by their faith,” Father Tom Tully, pastor of Holy Family, said. “I think it’s in many ways this is not a parish that was started on the basis of some demographics or projection for growth or anything. This was based on courageous individuals encouraging one another until, after many years, they were really able to pull something together.”
On Sunday, March 11, Holy Family Catholic Church celebrated Mass with Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Raleigh to dedicate a newly constructed office space in honor of the church’s 25th anniversary year. The original church—which doubled in size in 1998—opened and was blessed in June 1986 as a mission of St. Thomas Moore Catholic Church in Chapel Hill. In June 1989, Holy Family became its own parish, and, in 2004, Tully was named priest, the first Catholic pastor in Hillsborough.
“There’s really a story of great success, growth, expansion,” Tully said. “... Northern Orange County really had a distinct history—the spirit of Hillsborough, the small town, the self-reliant spirit, the kind of colonial emphasis, the distinction from the southern part of the county.”
After the purchase of the land in June 1982 and after construction began in July 1984, the first thing future parishioners did was to build and erect a cross on the site. That cross weathered 25 years and was replaced as part of the quarter-century celebrations.
“It’s quite a significant piece of wood identifying the dedication of the whole property in the early ’80s to the work of the church, and it still is front and center,” Tully said. “... A lot of the original work was done by parishioners. This wasn’t a matter of some rich benefactor or something. This was literally people working together not just by will but literally by their hands, working together to make this happen.”
And the church has grown tremendously since its humble beginnings, jumping from 20 or 30 families to about 680. Through the years, the congregation has added a significant amount of Latino members, and the parish began holding a Spanish Mass on Sundays in addition to its other three services.
Holy Family boasts a strong children’s education program as well as the Knights of Columbus Council, a service organization dedicated to reaching out to the broader community.
But through all of its expansion, the Catholic family has remained just that—a close-knit group united in faith and working toward a shared goal.
“We’ve grown a whole lot,” long-time parishioner Jim Babel said. “Many families have moved in. I think what’s neat is that, through all of that, there’s always been a great sense of community. ... We haven’t lost that. A lot of people have moved in, moved away for various reasons, and it’s still maintained that sense.”
Some of the church additions have actually helped to enhance that spirit, and Tully said he hopes the new office space will serve such a role. A 2,000-square-foot refurbished building housing several rooms for everything from administration to parish outreach, the new offices will also allow the community to expand adult faith formation.
“We’ve always made space for family activities and for classrooms,” Tully said. “We’ve got nice facilities downstairs for gathering people together and for teaching, but this is really the first kind of office building adult meeting space that we’ve had. And so this building, in a way, represents a kind of challenge for not just the religious education of our children—which we do very well—but a challenge also for the religious education and religious formation of our adults.”
Tying the new addition’s dedication to the quarter-century festivities allows the Holy Family congregation to not only celebrate where it came from but look forward to where they would like to go.
“Anniversaries are great because they help us to remember the past, and it’s so important for us to remember the past,” Burbidge said. “It’s also a time to say let’s look at the future and continue what people have started so many years ago.”