A new Catholic chapel is being built behind Ocracoke United Methodist Church. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Peter Vankevich

Ocracoke has two churches, the Life Saving Church on Lighthouse Road and the Ocracoke United Methodist Church on School Road. These are Protestant churches.

Although there has never been a Roman Catholic church on the island, masses have been held at various times over the years.

That will soon change as the Diocese of Raleigh announced recently that a new chapel is being built in a secluded area behind the Methodist Church.

For the Reverend Alfred Smuda, OSFS, affectionately known as Father Fred, it couldn’t come sooner.

Since 2013, when he replaced the deceased Father Bob Brown, he would leave his Our Lady of the Seas parish in Buxton and head for Ocracoke.

Formerly weekly and now twice a month, ferry service permitting, the Catholic mass takes place on a weekday, usually Wednesday or Friday afternoons, but never on Sunday when masses take place in the Buxton church.  

Expressing appreciation to the Methodist Church for permitting use of their facilities over the years, he said, “We need something to call our own, a place, kind of an anchor or support. That’s one of the reasons we’re doing it: A place to congregate, hold mass and meetings for a group of people that are excited about God and want to stay together as a community.”

When he would leave the Methodist rec hall after mass, he would gaze at an adjacent house surrounded by trees and muse, “That would be a wonderful place to build a chapel and use the house as the priest’s residence and meeting place.”

He was right about the church having no anchor.

“Roman Catholics on the island and visitors attended mass over the years on Ocracoke in many locations,” said Nancy Carlson who has attended weekly mass since she moved here full-time in 1998.

Architect’s rendition of the new chapel.

In addition to the Methodist properties, mass has been held in the Community Center, the old fire station, the Berkely barn, outside at Books to be Red and in various people’s homes, including her own and her former Pelican Bed and Breakfast.  

The dream is about to come to fruition.

The home and the land graced with old live oaks he would often gaze upon belonged to the Wilson and Martha Garrish family as it was the home of Wilson’s late parents, Preston “Jule” Garrish and Etta Mae Howard.

Through the gift of a small land parcel and the sale of the Wilson property, it will become home to a Catholic chapel and a parish house.

The house renovations are almost finished, and with pilings in place, building of the 80-seat chapel has begun.

The principal architect for the project is Russ Woods of Kinston, and Waters Contracting of Newport is the builder.

Completion is expected in about eight months and the grounds, with some benches, will retain their native plants and trees, including laurel, wax myrtle, cedar and live oak trees.

Martha Garrish, a realtor for Ocracoke Island Realty, is delighted that her husband Wilson’s family home and the adjoining land that they donated will serve a new purpose. “Actually, my sister Donna [Drilling] and I have always had a dream of building a small chapel church here in recognition of my parents who were devout Catholics, so it just all came together.”

A native of Buffalo, New York, Martha has lived on Ocracoke for about 40 years. When she and Wilson married on the island in 1984, they needed a special dispensation to have a Catholic wedding outside of a Catholic church and be married by a Methodist minister.

“This will be really nice. People will be able to get married here,” she said, adding that the chapel will also be important for locals’ faith life and for visitors who want to attend mass.

“What I am looking forward to is that this will serve the Hispanic community,” Father Smuda said. “I’m looking forward to growth, and what I am really going to enjoy is the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.”

“I’m excited for them. I know they’ve been using the church for years and then with Hurricane Dorian they were displaced alongside us for a while,” said Methodist Pastor Logan Jackson. “I’m excited to see how they can grow and to see how our church and their church can come together and continue to be an encouragement to each other and community.”

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