The discovery and exploration of crypts under the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, is unearthing layers of history previously thought to be lost and is expected to create a clearer picture of the parish’s heritage.
There’s little documentation on the early parish, once called St. Patrick’s, largely because the parish has been interracial since the early to mid-1800s when whites, free blacks and slaves worshipped there, according to Father Jim Curran, basilica pastor.
“Black history throughout the country, specifically in the south but also in Norfolk and Virginia, was not really seen as worthy of recording by the people documenting history at that time,” Father Curran said. “A lot of what we know is not from official documents but was passed down orally from one generation to the next.”
St. Mary’s, the oldest Catholic parish community in the diocese, is finishing a six-year renovation on its 1858 church that may reveal the congregation’s early history. During construction and ensuing archaeological investigation, two brick tunnels and several burials were found beneath the concrete floor at the entrance to the worship space.
Ground penetrating radar detected “dozens upon dozens” of burials in other places under the church, said David Brown, project supervising archaeologist and co-director of Fairfield Foundation, a Gloucester-based nonprofit center for archaeology and preservation.
St. Mary’s traces its origin to a group of French immigrants fleeing persecution in the French Revolution in 1791. According to differing accounts, immigrants from Ireland, the Dominican Republic and Haiti may have been among the first congregants.
The parish was established in 1794 and built a wood-frame chapel by 1803, just east of the corner of Holt and Chapel streets where the basilica stands. A brick chapel replaced it in 1831, a larger one, in 1842, according to a 2017 register nomination that Commonwealth Presentation Group, a Norfolk historic preservation consultant working with the parish, submitted to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR). The register nomination said “as early as 1842, there is documentation of African American parishioners at St. Patrick’s.”
The 1842 church building was destroyed in a fire in 1856, a suspected arson by the Know Nothings, a short-lived clandestine political party in the mid-1800s known for its anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic beliefs.
The parish changed its name to St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception when the new church was dedicated in 1858. The majestic structure is built at least partially over St. Patrick Church’s graveyard.
According to the basilica’s website, African American Catholics began attending St. Mary’s in 1886 where a portion of the choir loft was reserved for them. Most left when St. Joseph Parish was established in Norfolk in 1889 for black Catholics. St. Joseph Parish merged with the predominantly white St. Mary’s in 1961. The parish’s congregation is now largely African American.
The parish decided to sponsor an archaeological study on the burials.
“It’s important to us to stay connected with our past and honor and respect all of it,” Father Curran said. “This is part of our history, and we want to know about it.”
Among other events, the early to mid-1800s in the nation saw the Gold Rush, (wagon) travel on the Oregon and California trails, and the beginning of rail travel. CPG reported one-third of St. Patrick’s congregation died of yellow fever between 1853 and 1855.
What they found
Marc Wagner, VDHR senior architectural historian, said that studies like this one can give history “a rich texture” because “archaeology has the potential of conveying a story you can’t get other ways.”
Five burials have been excavated, all of which contained human remains. The other burials will be left undisturbed. Brown speculates that the burials were circa 1800 to 1856.
Three of the five burials were in crypts, meaning the coffin was encased in a brick structure underground rather than buried directly in the ground. An intact adult skeleton in a crypt and another in a grave shared with a child were “remarkable,” Brown said.
The archaeology team discovered some of the child’s bones, a rare find in that children’s bones are not as well formed and are smaller and more fragile than adult bones, Brown said. A family crypt, designed to stack coffins upon each other, had a jumble of bones, possibly from the same person. A grave through which a tunnel crosses had “dozens” of bones, some from animals which might have used it for a den. The bones of another crypt were too fragile to be exhumed.
Excavation of the burials took longer than expected, three weeks instead of the anticipated five days, partially due to COVID-19 restrictions on social distancing and the limitation of no more than 10 people convened in one place.
The excavation itself had some setbacks. For example, clay was packed harder than expected in some places, and although most of the bodies were buried two to three feet below the ground, one was six feet down.
Determining the exact identity of the people exhumed is “highly improbable,” Brown said.
Michael Clem, VDHR eastern regional archaeologist, explained there are no known cemetery maps identifying people in the burials. Ground structures such as tombstones and monuments were moved or destroyed before church construction began.
Individuals might have been given the opportunity to exhume their loved ones and bury them elsewhere at their own expense before church construction. That may have been the case with the excavated family crypt.
A story to tell
Yet much can be learned from the burials and bones.
The study is expected to employ historical research, archaeological analysis, forensic evaluation and, pending public engagement, DNA testing and stable isotope analysis. The combined methods may identify gender, race, ethnicity, lifestyle and family relationships of the people in the burials, experts working on the archaeological project collectively say. It may take as long as two years to complete the study, after which the remains will be reburied at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery on Granby St. in Norfolk.
At press time, archaeologists were reviewing and summarizing field notes in preparation for analyses. The public engagement period for DNA and stable isotope analyses had not yet started.
The brick vaulted tunnels were likely used for water drainage as similar structures in Hampton, Colonial Williamsburg, Robert “King” Carter plantation in Lancaster County and Rosewell Plantation in Gloucester County were ¬used for that purpose in the 18th and 19th centuries, Brown said. The basilica tunnels are about 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall. One measures 40 feet long, and the other is at least 20.
It is unknown whether the tunnels doubled for other purposes like the Underground Railroad, a network of people from the late 18th century to the Civil War who offered shelter and aid to tens of thousands of escaped slaves on the run to non-slave states and Canada. The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad and for the most part not underground but was so named because its activities were secret. The tunnels under the basilica won’t be part of the archaeological study but can be accessed from the outside of the church should a study be undertaken at a later date.
Regardless, the current archaeological investigation has a story to tell.
“Documents don’t give you the whole picture. Once you open the ground, the story changes. You can have a lot more answers, but you also wind up with new questions,” Clem said. “Studying these remains will help us understand the early stages of the church and the evolution of the congregation over time and the social development in the Norfolk area.”
Jeryl Rose Phillips, CPG planning associate, said the investigation may “add another page to the collective history” of the parish and diocese.
“We have an opportunity to understand where we are today, why we are here, how we got here and what was going on at the time,” she said.