Rafael Guastavino Moreno couldn't find a seat in the tiny North Carolina church. So he built a church that could welcome all.
The pure mountain air of western North Carolina made the city of Asheville an ideal place for people with tuberculosis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sanitariums sprang up, promising a cure for a disease for which there was not yet a medical cure. Antibiotics would not be developed until the 1940s.
So the influx of people visiting patients meant, among other things, that the number of Catholics in the area put pressure on the modest church of St. Lawrence in Asheville. As Catholics were a small minority in most of the southern United States, there wasn’t much need — or money — to build anything bigger than a small wooden church.
But when the highly-regarded builder Rafael Guastavino Moreno attended Mass there one Sunday in July 1905, things began to change. There were so many Catholic visitors in town that Guastavino, who lived in the town of Black Mountain, about 16 miles away, could not find a seat. The pastor told him later that in a couple of months, the tourists would be gone, and Guastavino, who had worked on the Biltmore mansion in Asheville for George W. Vanderbilt, would then be able to sit down.