A new Catholic church in Highlands will soon replace the old

Over the last 20 years most every church in the Highlands downtown area has been renovated or expanded except for the Catholic church – Our Lady of the Mountains on Fifth Street.

But the time has come.

At a recent unveiling of sorts, Rev. Father Jason K. Barone, parochial administrator, announced the church’s “Building a Beacon of Catholic Faith” capital campaign with $5-$10 million in its sights.

The plans to build a new church, revitalize the church property – whereby revitalizing the parish – are substantial and started January 2022.

The idea is that the baroque-style church structure of approximately 9,000 square feet will provide a comfortable church for celebrating Mass and the Sacraments; seating for approximately 300 people; a narthex for fellowship before and after Mass and for use as a cry room; dedicated spaces for the confessional, Baptismal font, sacristy, and vestry for the priest and altar servers; a choir loft for singers and musicians, as well as the organ, piano, and other instruments; restrooms that are fully accessible by all and appropriately located.

With its traditional rectangular floorplan, the sanctuary of the new church will allow all worshipers to direct their focus simultaneously on the High Altar, the tabernacle, and the crucifix. The 2.5-acre campus on 5th Street in Highlands.  is an ideal site for the new church, as well as room for future construction of a parish hall and office facility.

This is a far cry from the current building which has long outgrown its use.

In the 1930s – a quaint Catholic mission was established on the plateau and priests from Waynesville, NC, offered Mass in Highlands every other week in the school auditorium in the Highlands Playhouse. 

Bishop Vincent Waters of the Diocese of Raleigh eventually purchased 2.5 acres of land on 5th Street in Highlands to establish Our Lady of the Mountain’s Mission and in 1950, built the current church. In 1950 it served 35 families year-round and 45 families seasonally. As it is now, OLM is debt-free.

As Highlands’ popularity grew, so did Our Lady of the Mountains. 

Between 1986 and 1990, a two-story wing was added to the church that doubled its seating capacity and provided a lower-level parish hall. A rectory and a retreat cottage was also built. For the next 32 years, however, the mission’s campus remained unchanged except for the construction of a 21-niche columbarium in 2021. 

Today, Our Lady of the Mountains serves over 325 families, full-time or seasonally, plus countless visitors attracted to the Highlands community year-round. 

With those numbers and now over 70 years old, the current church structure is showing its age and limitations. 

The current sanctuary does little to unify worshipers. Physically and visually the congregation is split in two. Half of the church faces the altar, and the other half faces the tabernacle and crucifix, all of which should be a central focus when Mass is celebrated, said Barone. 

Furthermore, there is no appropriate place to gather before and after Mass, so suitable space is needed for parishioner interactions outside the sanctuary itself. 

According to Father Barone, a millennium before Christ, King David was inspired to build the Temple where God could dwell among men. His vision was ambitious as he desired the building to reflect the grandeur of God and His closeness to His people. 

“We, too, share King David’s vision of an inspiring building that reflects the meeting of the human with the divine. Further, given the demographics of Highlands, we possess a rare opportunity to bring to fruition a truly magnificent and inspiring spiritual home,” said Barone

The new church is designed in the baroque style because the baroque design hearkens back to a specific momentous time in Catholic Church history, said Barone. 

After years of scandal and corruption during the Renaissance that led to the Reformation and disunity within the Church, the Holy Spirit brought about authentic renewal during the “baroque” period. That renewal, led by the holiness of new saints, was reflected in the arts and architecture. Baroque, therefore, represents renewal from decay, or a phoenix rising from the ashes – a sign we desperately need today, said Barone. A precious gem of ecclesiastical architecture, baroque design is making a return in popularity. 

Barone says the new building will exhibit the timeless grace of this period of church architecture to people within and beyond Highlands. 

Rich in traditional religious symbolism, the new church will manifest God’s glory and inspire a deeper reverence for the Mass and the Sacraments, embodying the good, the true, and the beautiful of the Catholic faith.

With its traditional rectangular floorplan, the sanctuary of the new church will allow all worshipers to direct their focus simultaneously on the High Altar, the tabernacle, and the crucifix.

With the blessing of Bishop Peter Jugis of the Diocese of Charlotte and by engaging Kucia Consulting, a firm that has assisted many parishes in North Carolina with capital projects, it has been determined that Our Lady of the Mountains, though small, has a robust history of giving that could support raising the $5 million needed for the basic church structure. 

However, a campaign that generates between $7.5 million and $10 million would fund the construction of the church proper and the potential of a parish hall and office facility that will accommodate the parish far into the future.

According to Planning Director Michael Mathis, the structure’s mostly stucco façade is allowed in the zone it occupies which is Residential 2 – in other zones in town only a small percentage of stucco is allowed.

“The stucco limitations are tied to our Community Design Standard, which governs commercially zoned parcels and multifamily housing complexes,” said Mathis. “Our Lady of the Mountains is located at 315 N 5th Street and zoned R-2 residential. Therefore, this property is not subject to the Community Design Standard.”

However before the town can approve the redevelopment it needs to see the plans to ensure they conform with the Unified Development Ordinance. 

The plans must show the impervious surface calculations (built-upon area); building setbacks; building height; parking; erosion and sedimentation control; stormwater runoff and any other information requested by the Planning and Development Office.

Father Barone said beside money raised through the capital campaign, the diocese supplies in-kind administrative support from its legal, development, properties, and finance offices.

“This will save us much money, but the diocese will not be ‘cutting’ us a check,” he said.

Since January 2022, the capital campaign has raised $7 million which means they could be on their way to developing the campus in addition to the church. 

Barone said optimistically he would love to break ground the fall of 2023. “But it’s too soon to give a definitive answer.

Pictured at the top of the article is a rendering of a baroque-style church on the Our Lady of the Mountains campus on 5th St as part of a $5-$10 million capital campaign.

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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