In 1935, Bishop William J. Hafey pointed to an empty lot overgrown with weeds in the poor western part of Greenville and said to Father Maurice Tew, a young Passionist priest from Boston, “This is your parish.”
The parish, at Father Maurice’s first glance consisted of a lonely cow grazing, but this would soon change. On March 1, 1936, contributions from benefactors in the north helped Father Tew build his church.
It was dedicated in honor of the Passionist, Saint Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother, as a “mission to the colored.” Two years later the rectory was built, and by 1940 the parish had grown to 72 members.
The parish hall, which became the social center of the parish was added in 1948. Father Tew’s building program had come to completion in 1956 with the addition of a Catholic school and convent. The Sisters of Christian Charity served and taught the children of Saint Gabriel’s for the next 30 years. All of this allowed the parish to grow from its original intention of a mission church to a vastly diverse and integrated parish.
Declining health forced Father Tew to leave the parish in 1965 and it seemed that the Passionist mission in West Greenville had ended. Diocesan priests staffed Saint Gabriel Church from 1965 until 1987 when the Passionists returned to Greenville.
Saint Gabriel’s School closed its doors in 1994, but not without God opening another door. The facility now houses a Head Start program serving more than 120 preschoolers from the West Greenville neighborhood. In the 1990’s, the church welcomed many new Spanish speaking families. The Hispanic population continues to grow adding to our numbers and diversity.
In September 2003, Saint Gabriel’s broke ground for a new worship/education center. This all became possible with the acquisition of an 88 acre farm by the Diocese of Raleigh, and the generous gift of another benefactor, Mr. Thomas Arthur, who gave Saint Gabriel’s a generous $1,000,000 gift in memory of his mother, Marie T. Ficklen. Our new location is less than three miles away from the original church and in West Greenville.
Beginning August 23, 2010, Saint Gabriel’s will be hosting the inaugural class of Pope John Paul II Catholic High School. Starting with 25 students, the high school will be renting classroom space from Saint Gabriel’s for its first year. This will be the second Catholic high school in the Diocese of Raleigh
Nearly 75 years later, Saint Gabriel’s is still here and continues to grow. The diversity in our parish still thrives and we have members from a dozen different countries who come together to worship!
St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother
Born on March 1, 1838, Francesco Possenti was the eleventh of thirteen children in the town of Assisi, Italy. Possenti was educated at the Christian Brothers’ School and at the Jesuit college in Spoleto. He was well liked by his peers and described as having a reputation of great charity and piety. Almost immediately after he completed his secular education, he entered the Passionist Community. On September 22, 1857, he made his religious profession and took the name Gabriel of Our Sorrowful Mother.
By June of 1859, local disturbances had forced the Passionists to relocate to Isola Gran Sasso (The Great Stone of Italy) located in central Italy. Gabriel proved to be an excellent student and was gifted with incredible memory. His excellence in his academics was only outshone by the strides he made in his spiritual life. It was around this same time that Gabriel began to present the first signs of tuberculosis. Gabriel was not at all bothered by the news and prayed that his death would be slow enough to allow him to spiritually prepare himself. He continued with his studies and duties at the monastery for another three years before passing on February 27, 1862 at the age of 23.
Not much is known of Gabriel’s time spent in the Passionist community; only that he was a fervent and exemplary Passionist novice who was a great source of inspiration for his fellow students. Gabriel had proven in his short time that he was an exemplary religious person and a devout follower of the Passionist Rule, being heavily devoted to the Virgin Mary.
Before he could be ordained as a priest, Gabriel died in the presence of his community and holding a picture of Our Lady of Sorrows. Those who were with him claim that at the moment of his death, he said up in bed, smiled, and reached for an unseen figure in the room. One of his brothers, Father Norbert, C.P. believed that Gabriel had seen the Virgin Mary at the moment of his death.
In 1866, the Passionists were forced to abandon the monastery at Gran Sasso. After the Passionists left, Gabriel’s sanctity had become famous in the nearby communities. In 1892, a committee was sent to examine Gabriel’s remains as a process of determining his canonization in the Church. The local townspeople gathered, determined not to have Gabriel taken from them. As is standard practice, at least one documented miracle must be presented for someone to be canonized a saint in the Church. The first miracle was the inexplicable healing of Maria Mazzarella from tuberculosis and the instantaneous cure of Dominic Tiber from an inoperable hernia. Gabriel was beatified on May 31, 1908 by Pope Pius X. The outbreak of World War I delayed Gabriel’s canonization. It wasn’t until May 13, 1920 that Gabriel was canonized by Pope Benedict XV.
It was the express wish of Pope Leo XIII and Pius X that St. Gabriel should be regarded as the chief patron of the youth of today, and especially as the patron of young religious, both novices and professed.
Prayer to St. Gabriel
O good St. Gabriel, God inspired you to love the passion of Jesus as it was reflected in the heart of Mary, his mother. By her side, you stood beneath the cross of Jesus, gazing on him as she did, and sharing her compassion.
O St. Gabriel, we wish, like you, to grow in love for God and all his people. Remember us in the trials of our life. Remember especially those who are young and in need. Support us, all our days, by your holy prayers. And when this life is done, may we join you in heaven in the joyful company of Jesus and Mary.