Wilmington-born Thomas Price was the first Tar Heel native ordained a Catholic priest in 1860. He's said to have ridden hundreds of miles across the rural state on horseback proclaiming the gospel among hostile crowds when fewer than 1,000 Catholics lived in North Carolina.
"He was priest for a long time here and very influential in the early history of Catholicism in this diocese," said Paul Griffiths, of Raleigh.
"I just had to come because - you know - of the North Carolina connection, and I love the church," said Peggy Taylor, of Knightdale.
Griffiths and Taylor were among dozens who filled Sacred Heart Cathedral Friday to see history. The start of the canonization process included a procession, hymns, and a homily delivered by Bishop Michael Burbidge.
But Price remains a long way from sainthood. The Catholic Church will establish several commissions to examine his life and whether he should become a saint. Burbidge explained the process could take years.
"We're all called to be saints, but very few of us are canonized and officially named a saint," Burbidge said. "To do that is very significant, so a lot of time is put into it."
In charge of the investigating tribunal is Rev. James Garneau.
"The church seeks the truth and trying to find the truth about Father Price and his life and his work and the effects of that work is the task of the commissions and the tribunal," said Garneau. "It's always important when God's holiness shines through the work and life of human beings, and the church simply tries to recognize it."
"A saint is someone who lives a heroic life that can inspire others to do the same," said Burbidge.
In addition to an exemplary life of service to the church, beatification requires evidence of one miracle.
Price's years of service extended beyond North Carolina. After working in the Wilmington area, he moved to Boston and co-founded a mission society before traveling the world and dying several years later in Hong Kong.