St. Philip Neri declared the largest congregation in town by The Fort Mill Times

FORT MILL — Catholics in the South are generally a religious minority.

Not in Fort Mill.

New faces are something parishioners at St. Philip Neri expect. The church has grown incredibly since it started 10 years ago as a mission.

Its pastor, Father John Giuliani, and parishioners never fully realized how much they had grown until Jan. 9, 2003. The Fort Mill Times ran a story on growth, focusing on local churches and ranking the size of congregations. The Presbyterian church, established in 1785, is the oldest. It’s in the top 5. Two Baptist churches are not as old; they rank 2 and 3.  The Times reported the biggest church in Fort Mill was St. Philip Neri, a church officially made a parish just two years ago.

The effort to create it goes back 10 years with 65 people in 44 families.

Father Giuliani said there are currently about 1,200 families on the books.

“We added 15 in the past two weeks,” he said. “We keep growing.”

The church has about 50 baptisms a year, he said. Some weeks there are people walking in the door each day to join.

Fort Mill Township is on the South Carolina-North Carolina border, between Charlotte and Rock Hill. Growth has been a hot topic in the area.  People move into the area to work in Charlotte, but choose to live in Fort Mill because of excellent public schools, Father Giuliani said.  Public schools are so good, there are no plans for a Catholic school.

But there are building plans.

“There was a woman asking around about moving to the area, I heard,” Father Giuliani said. “She asked if there was a Catholic church in the area and someone said, ‘There is one, but it’s full.’”

The church has a two-part building program, so it won’t be “full” anytime soon.

The parish is halfway through a plan to raise $1 million to build a $2 million Ministry Center. When that is completed, the parish will begin raising money for a $5 million sanctuary.

Father Giuliani also thinks the growth will soon slow. Out-of-control growth was an issue in the last town council election.

Nobody ever thought the church was the biggest in town, said Shelly Dwyer, wife of the church’s deacon, Jon Dwyer. But the parishioners take some pleasure in it. During a conversation with other parishioners, Dwyer did a celebratory pump with her fist. “It’s just wonderful,” she said.

Father Giuliani said he didn’t know the church was the largest until told by the newspaper.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” said Betty Adams, one of the core families who helped establish the parish. “But the love is very apparent when you walk in the door.”

Word of mouth about that love is what causes the growth, many say.  Mitchell Hugh, a 28-year resident of nearby Tega Cay, said he was also surprised by the growth. “Looking back, you can see it; the area was ripe for growth.”

Father Giuliani said the numbers aren’t important.

“Quantity doesn’t matter as much as quality,” he said. “We have a quality parish, quality people. Come and see it.”