Church preserves history, remains ‘beacon of hope’ in community

Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, receives grant from African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. The goal is to help Black churches preserve their history while they continue to serve their communities. (Photo/Wendy Klesch)

Basilica one of two Catholic churches nationwide awarded special grant

In the Gospel, Christ calls upon everyone to be good stewards of the gifts that God has given them, so that they might use them in building up his kingdom.

Through dedication and perseverance, the parishioners of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, have done just that.

In January, the Basilica of St. Mary was honored for its efforts — both in preserving the past and in working for a better future — with a grant of $150,000 from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“It was a nice surprise,” said Father James Curran, pastor of St. Mary. “We were the only church in Virginia and one of only two Catholic churches in the country to be recognized.”

The award, which was announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, will help the parish to care for and maintain the recently renovated basilica, ensuring that its bright red doors remain open for years to come.

Chosen from more than 1,200 applicants nationwide, the basilica is one of 35 organizations to receive an award. The Action Fund will disburse a total of $4 million over the next two years through its Preserving Black Churches project, a project made possible by a $20 million initiative from Lilly Endowment, Inc.

A beacon of hope

“Save the past. Enrich the future.”

These words serve as the slogan of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Candra Parker, a parishioner from Holy Rosary, Richmond, who has a professional background in grant writing and who shepherded St. Mary through the application process, explained that the trust looks at both elements in reviewing grant applications.

“Even though the grant is a preservation grant — looking primarily at the building and the structure — the program also considers the justification for keeping it alive,” she said. “It asks, ‘Why is this church significant in the community?’”

Two key points made St. Mary a strong candidate, she said.

“In addition to the historical significance to the church, St. Mary is doing what they have been doing forever,” Parker said. “They have a food bank, they feed people and, even though the community has been torn down around them” —
razed as part of the St. Paul Redevelopment project — “the people are still coming in.”

“It’s one of the things that’s such a blessing about the basilica — the impact that they have on the community,” Father Curran said. “They’ve always been very focused on being good neighbors and on helping one another.”

Even when the basilica was in the midst of its $6.7 million restoration project, he said, the church continued a robust outreach program to the hungry and those in need.

The fact that the church had recently completed a successful capital campaign, Parker said, also served as a testament to the church, proof positive that the parish has earned strong community support.

“They are building the kingdom of Christ out in the community in so many ways,” she said. “The church gave, and the community gave back. They aren’t a city on a hill with big walls around it. It is beacon of hope, literally — when you ride through there, you can see the church from the highway. It’s a shining beacon of hope.”

A time to preserve

Through protecting aging roofs and walls, the Preserving Black Churches project aims to preserve the stories that those walls tell, as well as keeping history alive.

“The preservation of our stories is very important,” Parker said. “It’s particularly significant for this diocese. Like many dioceses, a lot of Black parishes here were closed in the ’60s. I saw that as a very young child; my parents were married in a church that is now closed.”

Present-day St. Mary, for example, was formed in part when neighboring St. Joseph was closed, merging the two parishes, she said.

Congregations seeking a preservation grant may apply for one of five categories: Programming and Interpretation, Capital Project, Project Planning, Endowment and Financial Sustainability, and — the category under which St. Mary won its award — Organizational Capacity Building and Operations.

Father Curran said that St. Mary plans to use the funds to hire staff members to maintain the recent renovation of the basilica, which began in 2016 when a simple roof repair job uncovered a host of problems, including extensive water and termite damage.

“One of the reasons we got into the hole that we found ourselves in was that there was no one on staff who knew what we should look for,” Father Curran said. “Once the water comes in, that’s it. The damage begins.”

The church spent the bulk of four years covered in scaffolding, undergoing work that included roof and structural repair, a new heating and air conditioning system, a new floor, and the restoration of its stained-glass windows. The sanctuary reopened in December 2020.

“This is almost like the final phase of our renovation project,” Father Curran said. “It is to help us preserve what we have done. We have restored, and now we’re going to preserve.”

History worth saving

“The significance of St. Mary to the diocese is that it is the diocese’s oldest parish, founded in 1791,” Msgr. Walter Barrett said.

Msgr. Barrett, recently retired director of the Office for Black Catholics, served as associate pastor of St. Mary from 1975 to 1977 and as pastor from 1985 to 2000.

“From its earliest days, it’s always had a racially-mixed congregation,” he said. “People from Saint-Domingue, which would be Haiti today, were there when it was still St. Patrick.”

St. Patrick, the first church to serve the parish, was founded by French Catholics fleeing the French Revolution. Soon, they were joined by the first wave of Irish immigrants as well as immigrants from Saint-Domingue.

During the 1850s, St. Patrick pastor, Father Matthew O’Keefe, came under fire from members of the Know-Nothing party — a clandestine political party known for its anti-Roman Catholic and anti-immigrant views — who objected to the priest celebrating integrated Masses.

When St. Patrick was burned on December 8, 1856, many believed it to be the work of the Know-Nothing Party.

A new church was built up from the ashes and completed in 1858, Msgr. Barrett said. It was named St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception.

In 1991, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the church a minor basilica.

“It was a long process,” Msgr. Barrett said. “There were certain requirements that had to be met. The French Gothic architecture was one of the things that Rome was interest- ed in, for example.”

The church, however, is beautiful not only for its liturgical furnishings and art, he said, but also as a living bastion of men and women who endeavor to follow the call of the Gospel.

He remembered when the parish’s food ministry began in the mid-1970s.

“It started out simply enough, with peanut butter and jelly or bologna sandwiches served out of the back door of the parish rectory,” he said, “and now it feeds hundreds of people each week.”

“The church merits preservation,” Msgr. Barrett said. “Not only because it’s a beautiful church — and it is beautiful — but because of its long and rich history.”

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