The Reverend Monsignor Christopher Dennen
First Pastor of St. Mary
1911 – 1939
The Reverend Monsignor Christopher Dennen was born on January 5, 1866 in Danville, PA to Irish immigrants, Sylvester ad Bridget Dennen. In 1875, his family moved to nearby Shamokin, PA.
In 1882, Christopher entered St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, PA, and on June 14, 1891, he was ordained a priest at Belmont Abbey, Belmont, NC, by Bishop Leo Michael Haid, O.S.B., the Vicar Apostolic of North Carolina. On June 27, 1891, Fr. Dennen came to Wilmington, NC and was installed as Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle, a parish established in 1845.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Wilmington’s growing Roman Catholic community saw a need for a larger church. Fr. Dennen went to work making plans for a larger church. Soon he began supervising the construction of a Spanish-Baroque church on the northwest corner of S. Fifth Avenue & Ann Street. The architect for the project was Rafael Guastavino from Valencia, Spain. The structure was built using Guastavino’s patented brick and tile vaulting support system. Fr. Dennen involved himself in many details of the church construction and choosing the sanctuary art. Fr. Dennen chose, for example, the statuary, the Italian marble flooring, and the tabernacle on the main altar crafted in Vatican City.
This new house of worship was dedicated as “St. Mary’s Church” on Sunday, April 28, 1912. Cardinal James Gibbons celebrated a Pontifical Mass in honor of the event.
The Church of St. Thomas the Apostle on Dock Street became a mission church of St. Mary Parish in 1912. For the next six decades, St. Thomas served as the center of worship and education for Catholics of African ancestry.
On November 22, 1923, Fr. Dennen was invested as a Domestic Prelate (Monsignor). An article in Wilmington’s News Dispatch said that Msgr. Dennen advised fourteen missions of his parish and took part in many civic activities. Msgr. Dennen served forty-eight uninterrupted years as a pastor.
On Monday, October 9, 1939, Msgr. Dennen died in Charlotte, NC. His body was returned to St. Mary Church in Wilmington where it lied in state. Following his funeral Mass, Msgr. Dennen’s remains were sent by train to Belmont Abbey Cemetery for burial.
Msgr. Dennen’s amazing legacy lives on in St. Mary Parish and, in fact, on the whole Cape Fear Coast. Due to his foresight and work, many parishes have been formed from St. Mary Parish, and St. Mary Parish itself is growing and flourishing. The Msgr. Christopher Dennen Assembly 2017 of the Knights of Columbus is named after him. Msgr. Dennen was offered the gift of being a “founding pastor.” He accepted this gift and used it wisely.