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Catholicism will be region's largest religion by 2020

READ MORE: Catholicism will be region's largest religion by 2020
Religion in our region can be traced back to the area's first settlers. In the 1770's the steeple for St. James Episcopal church on 3rd street was already part of our skyline. As the region grew, so did religions here. The number of institutions increased from forty to more than three hundred in the past 60 years, making Wilmington one of the most diverse areas in the buckle of the Bible Belt. We're still changing. Throughout the south many spend their Sundays in a Baptist or Methodist church. In Wilmington, Catholicism has become one of the area's largest religions. "The Roman Catholic church will continue to grow as it has for the last decade or so due to both Hispanic immigrants and retirees from other regions of the nation," said Walter Conser, UNCW Professor of History and Religious Studies. In the last 15 years the number of Catholics statewide has increased from from 85,000 to 207,000. Ninety-five percent come from out of state. "At St. Mary we have people from every continent of the world, except for Antarctica," said Priest Father Bob Kus of St. Mary Parish. St. Mary is the oldest of the three parishes in Wilmington. Most congregants in St. Mary parish come from Latin America. Like Juan Tovar and his wife Macarena who came here from Mexico five years ago. "We are Catholic and were raised Catholic. But here it's a very important activity for us," Juan Tovar said. "It's like getting in touch with the people with the same traditions, language and you identify with them." When the Tovars came to Wilmington, the church was all they knew. Same for many Hispanic immigrants, who've made the church the center of their community. "Chruch has a different role than in Mexico," said Tovar. "Over there it's like the spirit part. Here, it's like spirit plus networking." The surge has Father Bob Kus working overtime to adjust. He says he's doing his best to learn Spanish and keep up with the new rituals. "When I first became a priest, people would ask me to celebrate a particular ritual that we had maybe in mexico and I would say 'I'm happy to do that, how do you do it? and they'd say, well I don't know. And as I'm doing it, they'd say, Padre?! Where's the candle? and I'd say, oh you want a candle," said Father Bob. "I had to learn as I went along." It's an important job. Particularly when the church is one of the only ways this new community is keeping old traditions alive. "We don't really speak English much in church," said Andrea Tovar, Juan and Macarena's nine year old daughter. "There's a lot of Mexican people and they wouldn't understand us if we talked in English," said Andrea's younger brother Jose, who is seven. "We don't want one side of our life to disappear and be around for a long, long time," Andrea added. St. Mary recently added two more weekend masses. One in English and one in Spanish. By 2020 Clergy say there will more of both. Tune in next week for part two of our look at Cape Fear religion as we take a look at how the Baptist church plans to grow with the region.

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