History of Immaculate Conception Mission Church
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church traces its beginnings back to the 1940s, when Catholics in the area gathered for Mass in private homes. Father Ambrose Rohrbacker, then-pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesville, North Carolina, celebrated those liturgies; later a mission was established in Canton, North Carolina.
During the gasoline-rationed World War II years, a school bus transported Canton Catholics through the mountains to Waynesville for Mass. The local Catholic population increased when veterans, Catholics among them, returned home after the war. Catholics were also included in the workforce who gained employment at a new paper mill in town.
Through the 1950s, the clergy of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church began ministering to more and more Catholics throughout North Carolina’s westernmost counties. From 1951, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church became responsible for missions in Fontana, Murphy, Franklin, Canton and Sylva. Several became parishes in later years, with Immaculate Conception Catholic Church staying on as the Waynesville church’s only mission.
In Canton, Mass was celebrated in the YMCA building during the early ’50s. An altar was set up on a bare floor, and parishioners sat on slatted wooden chairs. A hallway served as the confessional. The visiting priest brought a makeshift altar: a suitcase containing vestments and altar furnishings, which folded out and was propped on legs.
Father (later Msgr.) Lawrence Newman was pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church when one of his parishioners, Mrs. R. E. Davis, informed him that suitable property for a church in Canton was for sale. The lot was purchased, the house on it was torn down and a parking lot was constructed.
All this activity made way for construction of the new Immaculate Conception Catholic Church to begin. A church hall and kitchen were included on the lower level of the new building. The redbrick structure is simple in design, with a native pine ceiling and ornate stained-glass windows highlighting the church’s nave.
In 1954, the 54 members of the Canton mission gathered with Bishop Vincent S. Waters of Raleigh, Father Newman and more than 20 other priests during the dedication service. The event had added significance for one group of parishioners, who received the sacrament of confirmation during the Mass.
Like many churches in the Diocese of Charlotte, Immaculate Conception Catholic Church serves an ever-increasing Hispanic population. Before embarking on a Spanish-immersion sabbatical in Mexico in 2002-2003, Father C. Morris Boyd, then pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Franklin, drove to Canton every Sunday for a year to celebrate Hispanic Mass at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church.
Presently, Father Shawn O’Neal, administrator of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Bryson City and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, celebrates Mass in Spanish about once a month for about 100 Hispanic worshipers in Canton.
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1979 with a Mass concelebrated by Bishop Michael J. Begley, the Diocese of Charlotte’s founding bishop, and a dozen priests who had served the area’s Catholics.
More than 200 Anglo and Hispanic parishioners gathered at the Colonial Theater in Canton to celebrate the church’s 50th anniversary June 6 with a special Mass concelebrated by Bishop Peter J. Jugis; Augustinian Father Dennis McGowan, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Waynesville; retired Father James Cahill, former pastor of St. Mary Catholic Church in Sylva; and Father C. Morris Boyd, administrator of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Jefferson and St. Frances of Rome Catholic Church in Sparta.
Immaculate Conception Catholic Church continues to maintain a close relationship with St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. Father W. Becket Soule, pastor of the two congregations, celebrates Mass each Sunday in the Canton church.
Registered membership in the mountain mission has both declined and swelled since those early years. Retirees now make up a significant percentage of today’s parish and Mass attendance goes up each summer as Catholic visitors flock to the area to take in Haywood County’s cool mountain air and slow-paced lifestyle.