The day after a newspaper in the small town of Shelby, N.C., reported that the Te Deum Foundation had acquired nearby land for a new Catholic seminary and monastery, a group of nuns in habits stopped at a local service station.

Fifty years ago — 10 years ago and, to some extent, even today — many Southerners regarded Catholics as unsaved and Catholicism as a non-Christian mystery religion.

But that day, everyone at the station greeted and welcomed the sisters. One woman even asked the nuns to pray for her injured nephew.

This acceptance marks a sea change in the Southern Baptist and evangelical Protestant-dominated South, where Catholics make up less than 10% of the population, compared with double-digit percentages in most northern states.

The Diocese of Charlotte, where the seminary will be located, is a prime example of Catholicism’s explosive growth in the South. Formed in 1972, the diocese had an initial 11,200 registered Catholic families.

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