The campaign to have a Wilmington native declared a saint is moving to the Tar Heel State.
The Roman Catholic diocese of Raleigh announced Tuesday that it will open a formal diocesan inquiry into the "Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Father Thomas Frederick Price" on March 9.
In the Roman Catholic Church, such an inquiry is the first step on the path to official sainthood.
The diocese will mark the occasion with a 6:30 p.m. prayer service on March 9 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Raleigh, with Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte and other Catholic dignitaries participating.
It could be years, or even decades, Price's sainthood is decided. Still, "this step will expedite the process," said Frank Morock, communications director for the diocese.
Born in Wilmington on Aug. 19, 1860, Thomas F. Price became the first native North Carolinian to be ordained a Catholic priest in 1886.
After years as a missionary in eastern North Carolina, Price joined with Father James A. Walsh of Boston in 1911 to co-found the American Catholic Foreign Mission Society.
The society – which became better known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers after its headquarters near Ossining in upstate New York – now has more than 500 priests serving in 27 countries, including the United States.
Price died in Hong Kong in 1919 of a ruptured appendix while leading a party of missionaries on their first assignment in China.
Efforts have been made for years to have Price declared a saint, first by the Catholic archdiocese of Hong Kong.
The Raleigh diocese recently took over the cause, or campaign, from the archdiocese of New York, Morock said, because North Carolina is Price's home state and because so much of the documentation of his life is here.
The diocese will work with the Maryknoll order and with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, an office of the Vatican.
To launch the inquiry, the diocese will convene a tribunal under canon law, to be aided by a historical commission and a theological commission.
Bishop Burbidge has appointed the Very Rev. James F. Garneau, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Mount Olive, as "Episcopal Delegate" to lead the tribunal.
On March 9, tribunal members will take oaths and will meet with officials from the Vatican, Garneau said.
Then they will begin the long process of collecting evidence. The Maryknoll fathers have already assembled a fairly complete collection of Price's writings, Garneau said. It is unlikely that first-hand witnesses will be called since Price died so long ago.
Under canon norms, or church law, to be recognized as a saint an individual must have lived a life of "heroic virtue" above and beyond ordinary Christian practice. If this is determined, Price will be granted the title of "Venerable."
Wilmington supporters are convinced Price showed "heroic virtue." Joan Pomnitz, who researched the priest's life, described how Price rode hundreds of miles on horseback across rural North Carolina, preaching and talking in often hostile communities.
When he was active, fewer than 1,000 professing Catholics lived in all of North Carolina.
Price also founded an orphanage near Raleigh and edited and published an evangelical magazine called "The Truth."
Father Walsh later said that Maryknoll would have been impossible without Price's prayers.
The church also requires evidence of miracles, which may take place after an individual's death. One miracle is normally required for the pope to declare an individual "beatified," or blessed. Two miracles are normally required for canonization, or sainthood.
After the diocese completes its inquiry, its documentation will be sent to the Vatican, where it will be reviewed by a panel of theologians.
All final decisions will be up to Pope Benedict XVI, Garneau said.
The tribunal will be seeking testimony from individuals who have information about Father Price, or who believe they experienced miracles at his intercession.
Those who wish to testify should contact Garneau in case of the Office of the Episcopal Delegate for the Cause of Father Price, P.O. Box 1145, Mount Olive, N.C. 28365.