Many may not be aware that St.Michael’s Catholic School and Belmont Abbey College have a shared history in their founding – the monks of Belmont Abbey. St. Michael’s School was founded 75 years ago. Around 1900, representatives of Loray Mill in Gastonia asked the Abbey’s Bishop, Abbot Leo Haid, to build a Catholic church in Gastonia. The new mill expected an influx of northern Catholics to come to work at the mill and hoped the Abbot could help care for the spiritual needs of the incoming New Englanders.
This spark was all the Abbot needed and he set off on a fundraising initiative to garner the necessary funds to build the new church. The time was a desperate one for the still young Catholic college: a terrible fire destroyed two thirds of the college building and the Abbot was asked not only to start a new parish but to also be a missionary to the local Native American and growing African American community. He therefore reached out to his friend and benefactor, Saint Mother Katharine Drexel, describing the direness of his situation to her. On July 11, 1900, Mother Katharine sent Leo Haid the $1,500 for the building of the Gastonia church and St. Michael’s was born.
By the early 1940’s, the Catholic community in Gastonia had grown so much that Mr. E. F. Gallagher, a good friend to St. Michael’s Fr. Alphonse Buss, O.S.B., advised the pastor that St. Michael’s needed a “Catholic education for its youngsters.” At Fr. Alphonse’s behest, the good sisters of Sacred Heart Convent in Belmont volunteered to staff the school and sent two of their very best teachers: Mother Margaret Mary Wheeler, RSM, served as the first principal and Sister Teresita Graham, RSM, began teaching first through sixth grades. St. Michael’s Catholic School soon began to take shape, with 22 pupils housed in a five-room house at York Street and Jackson Road, plus the basement of a home across the street for first grade – the humblest of beginnings.
With continued growth of the Gaston County Catholic community over the next decade, the needs for a larger school became evident. According to The Georgia Bulletin on March 27, 1947, “The Sisters of Mercy, who teach in the school, have so endeared themselves to parents and pupils that a waiting list is constantly maintained.” St. Michael’s little school was keeping families from moving elsewhere in search of a Catholic education but was in dire need of expansion. In February 1952, under the leadership of Fr. Gregory Eichenlaub, O.S.B., St. Michael’s Catholic School dedicated its new facility complete with classrooms, a library, a cafeteria and recess areas – a dream come true that continues to this day.
From the Abbot’s founding of the first Catholic Church in Gastonia, to Fr. Alphonse, an Abbey monk, serving as the first pastor and establishing the new school, Belmont Abbey College and its monastery has had a significant impact in the St. Michael’s beginnings. It not only built a college in western North Carolina but also the cornerstone of the Catholic faith in Gaston County that continues to faithfully serve families in the area to this day.