On August 19, 1977, the day Elvis died, Fr. Hugh Charles Xavier Mulholland, known affectionately as Fr. Charlie, came to my family home in Little Neck, Queens, NY. He brought me to Greenville, NC to be his pastoral assistant at St. Gabriel Catholic Church.
Charlie, who would have turned 100 years old on April 23, was among a group of young seminarians who left the North to join the Diocese of North Carolina. Bishop Vincent Waters had called for the desegregation of all Catholic schools in North Carolina almost a decade ahead of the Civil Rights Act. It was a bold move celebrated by African Americans and progressive whites as well as priests who wanted to be part of the effort to desegregate the South.
St. Gabriel was on “the other side of the tracks,” a poor Black neighborhood just a mile from the large homes that lined East 5th St. across from the campus of East Carolina University. Moving to Greenville at age 21 was a culture shock to this Yankee. It was also a profound experience being able to learn all about a brand of activist Catholicism I knew little about.
My first day, Charlie told me he had a meeting in Chapel Hill. I was his driver, a job I did innumerable times. Our destination was the UNC Newman Catholic Student Center. Charlie sat on the board of the N.C. Civil Liberties Union. At the meeting I met the Rev. W.W. Finlater, pastor of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, and many others I don’t remember, but all of them were men and women involved in the important work of preserving civil liberties.
In Greenville, Charlie took me to my first local NAACP meeting, where a sign on the wall said: “If you are Black and not registered to vote, you are a burden far too heavy for your brothers to bear.” Charlie and I were the only whites there, and Charlie joked: “I’m here to keep them honest.” We also ate lunch in the local soul food restaurant, where I got to know my neighbors. Charlie was a man who was completely trusted by the Black community of Greenville.
When Charlie was transferred from St. Gabriel’s to Mother of Mercy Parish in Washington, his friends had a going away party for Charlie. Mayor Percy Cox came to the party and gave Charlie a sendoff. Cox gave Charlie a tie pin with the City of Greenville logo on it. Said Cox: “We would have given you the key to the city, but we were afraid you’d come back.”
Charlie would pick up the day-old donuts from a local shop a few times a week, and bring them back to the rectory, where I would spend a lot of my time answering the doorbell to hand out donuts to the neighborhood children.
At the St. Gabriel rectory, Charlie and I would have breakfast of eggs and toast prepared by the late Lucille Gorham, who was Charlie’s most important parishioner and confidant for all his years in Greenville. At the table we would share The News & Observer and the Greenville Daily Reflector each morning.
One day I was surprised to see Charlie quoted in a news story. The previous day he had been among a group of prominent state leaders who had met with Gov. James B. Hunt urging the governor to commute the prison sentences of the Wilmington 10, which included the nationally renowned civil rights activist, Ben Chavis. I remember Charlie saying he was impressed with Hunt, that he was well informed for the meeting with the heavyweights. I was just awed that I was living with a priest who knew the governor.
Late at night Charlie would be hard at work knocking out letters on his manual typewriter. One day he shared a letter from jail he had received from Elizabeth McAlister, the widow of the late Philip Berrigan, two radical Catholics who were at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War effort. Charlie referred to McAlister as “Liz.” I had only known her name as I had always read it in The New York Times. Later, when Charlie invited Liz to speak at St. Gabriel, I was the one who drove to RDU to pick her up. Today, Liz and I are codefendants in the Kings Bay Plowshares. She served almost 18 months in jail for our anti-nuclear weapons protest at Naval Station Kings Bay in 2018.
A brilliant man, Charlie also had a deep and abiding faith. He never turned away a beggar at the rectory door. On a day when Charlie gave a woman the last bill out of his wallet, a letter came in the mail with a donation for Charlie to use at his discretion. He told that story with a sense of knowing that God looked after us.
When I was in prison in Atlanta in 1985, Charlie came to visit me on Easter Monday. A balding, short, unassuming man with a ready smile, I introduced Charlie to the guards and the other inmates as “the man who is responsible for where I am today.”
During his priestly career that spanned almost a half-century in the state, Charlie served several parishes and campuses in the Triangle and beyond. To those who knew Charlie, our lives where touched by greatness. Charlie Mulholland, rest in peace.
(Patrick O’Neill and his wife Mary Rider are cofounders of Garner’s Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, where Fr. Charlie served as the ministry’s first chaplain.)