north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     North Carolina’s Catholic heritage is embodied in Gaston County’s Belmont Abbey College, a private coeducational liberal arts institution owned and operated by monks of the Order of St. Benedict. An abbey is the smallest jurisdictional unit in the Catholic world and the Belmont Abbey church is on the only abbey-cathedral in the United States. It was the seat of Catholic authority in North Carolina from the mid-1870s until 1920 at which time it was the only Catholic college between Virginia and Florida.

     After the Civil War, Rev. Jeremiah O’Connell purchased the 500-acre Caldwell plantation in Gaston County. O’Connell, an Irish missionary priest operating in the Carolinas and Georgia, wanted a religious community to accept the property and establish an institution for the education of young men. At the request of Bishop (later Cardinal) James Gibbons of Richmond, the Benedictine Monks of St. Vincent’s Arch-abbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, agreed to accept the land and establish a community and school. It was a bold move to establish a Catholic enclave in an area surrounded by North Carolina Protestants.

     Initial classes at “St. Mary’s College” were held in October 1876. A fully organized course of instruction was not offered until September 1878. The faculty and student body grew steadily, and a new dormitory was added in 1881. On November 9, 1884, the school was given its independence from the motherhouse in Latrobe, and the school became an abbey. In July 1885, the Right Rev. Leo Haid was elected its first abbot. Haid brought ten monks from Pennsylvania to work at the new “St. Mary Help of Christians Abbey.” In April 1886 the school received its charter from the state of North Carolina. Senior college courses were added to the curriculum, and by 1888 graduate work in theology was offered at the school. New buildings were erected, and in 1913 the name was officially changed from St. Mary’s to Belmont Abbey College (for the nearby village).

     In 1928, Belmont was reorganized as a junior college, and obtained full accreditation from the Southern Association in 1936. In 1952, it became a senior college, and by 1955 was offering a program in engineering (in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame and North Carolina State University). The cathedral was designated a Minor Basilica by the Catholic Church of Rome in 1998 (a rare honor). Today, the Abbey Cathedral is the center of a 650-acre campus (much of which has been designated a National Register Historic District), and the monks reside in the nearby monastery. The coeducational college offers four-year degrees in major areas of study.


References:
Tom McIntyre, Belmont Abbey, 1876-1976 (1976)
Minnie Stowe Puett, History of Gaston County (1939)
Belmont Abbey College website: http://www.belmontabbeycollege.edu/
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Belmont Abbey College

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