Durham, North Carolina was a sleepy southern city until the birth of Research Triangle Park (RTP) in the late 1960s. Then everything changed forever. Many companies set up research and development centers in RTP and began to relocate employees from the northeastern part of the country; many of them were Catholic.
Msgr. James E. McSweeney, then pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Durham, sensed the potential for Catholic growth. He proposed the formation of a new parish to accommodate the flood of newcomers. Immaculate Conception donated 15 acres of land in southwest Durham to help start the new parish. Mr. and Mrs. John Gaetano of Orange, Connecticut, gave a generous gift of $100,000 to build the new church and rectory, with the proviso that the new parish bear the name “Holy Infant” to honor John Gaetano's devotion to the Infant of Prague.
To staff the new parish, Most Reverend Vincent Waters, then-Bishop of Raleigh, called upon the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a community of priests and brothers from Wilmington, Delaware. On October 4, 1970 Bishop Waters dedicated the new church. Approximately 70 families, primarily from the Parkwood neighborhood in southern Durham, composed the initial congregation. In short order a Parish Advisory Board was established, Catholic Christian Doctrine programs inaugurated, and social clubs formed.
Initially the parish grew slowly, and by April 1981 had doubled in size to 150 households. In August 1981, the parish faced a major crisis. A lightning strike in the pre-dawn hours of August 8 caused a fire which severely damaged the church. When dawn broke, blue sky was visible where once a roof had sheltered the now-destroyed altar. What at first appeared to be a major tragedy for the young parish would become an unforeseen blessing. For a year and a half after the fire, liturgies were held at the Parkwood Elementary School. Out of necessity, many parish activities took place in neighboring churches and in parishioners' homes.
When Holy Infant began meeting at the school, chairs for the liturgy were set up in the traditional straight row-upon-straight row format, with people gazing at the back of others' heads, but the pastor changed the seating into a semi-circle around the altar. Parishioners had come to the school as a traditional Catholic parish, but returned to their rebuilt church building as a people with new insights into what it means to be a Catholic Christian community. Holy Infant began to identify itself as a people, not a place. Not only did the parishioners change, so too did the church sanctuary. The design now incorporated a new liturgical environment which included semi-circular seating around the altar area. On November 21, 1982, Bishop F. Joseph Gossman celebrated the re-dedication of Holy Infant. The parish now numbered 200 households.
Throughout the late 20th century Holy Infant continued to grow and flourish, and as we embrace the the 21st century, we have been blessed with--and challenged by--continued growth. Today we are a community of approximately 800 households.
Oblate Service Through the Years
For our first seventeen years the parish was served by one Oblate priest / pastor. In addition, Oblate deacons preparing for ordination served in the parish for five-month periods, and Oblate seminarians completed summer internships at the parish. This system continued until an associate pastor was assigned to the parish in 1987. By the late 20th century, however, due to the shortage of priests, it was no longer possible to assign an associate pastor to Holy Infant. Currently, we are again served by one Oblate priest / pastor.
Many Oblates of St. Francis de Sales have faithfully served the parish as pastors and parochial vicars, including Edward H. Friel, OSFS; Anthony Silvestri, OSFS; Harry McGovern, OSFS; Louis R. McCartney, OSFS; Anthony Simeone, OSFS; James Behan, OSFS; James Turner, OSFS; Philip Cerrato, OSFS; Richard R. DeLillio, OSFS; Joseph C. Zuschmidt, OSFS; John E. McGee, OSFS; Richard Cleary, OSFS; Michael McCue, OSFS; Joseph Brennan, OSFS; David Devlin, OSFS; and our current pastor, Rev. Robert M. Rutledge, OSFS.
In 1995 Holy Infant observed its 25th anniversary as a parish. The year-long celebration culminated in a special anniversary liturgy on October 1, 1995 at the Carolina Theater in downtown Durham. The site was chosen for the anniversary liturgy so that all parishioners could join together to celebrate at one time, in one place, as one people. Bishop F. Joseph Gossman presided, and many Oblates who had served the parish returned to participate in the liturgy and celebration.
In October 2010 Holy Infant observed its 40th anniversary with a Mass celebrated by the Most Reverend Michael F. Burbidge, Bishop of Raleigh, and concelebrated by Reverend James Greenfield, OSFS, Provincial of the Oblates, our then-pastor Rev. Joseph T. Brennan, OSFS, former Oblate pastors, and other Oblate and diocesan priests. The Mass was followed by a celebratory reception, and a few days later a family picnic was held with games and fun for some 500 parishioners. In addition, a remembrance booklet was created and distributed to parishioners to commemorate the history of the parish.