In 1882, about two dozen Catholics in Big Lick, soon to be called Roanoke, celebrated Mass in a repainted railroad car. By 1902, the faithful could worship in a yellow brick Gothic Revival church named for St. Andrew.
Now, the building overlooking the city, its spires visible for miles, has a new title recognizing its history, architectural beauty and religious significance. The Vatican designated St. Andrew a minor basilica last month, the second in the Diocese of Richmond. (The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, received that honor in 1992.)
“With this decree, I hope more individuals will be drawn to visit this special treasure, and in doing so, will draw more to inquire about the faith,” said Bishop Barry C. Knestout, in a statement.
“May this basilica continue to be a place of personal encounter with Christ, a place of robust faith formation and through its beauty, externally and in the liturgy, elevate the hearts and minds of all who attend Mass here,” the bishop also said in the statement.
St. Andrew is now one of about 90 minor basilicas in the U.S. and one of more than 1,800 in the world. The Vatican recognizes only four major basilicas, churches that are hundreds of years old, all in the Diocese of Rome: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls and St. Mary Major.
“People who are in the know about basilicas have thought for some time that we might be able to be named a basilica just because of our architectural significance and our significance here as a landmark in the city of Roanoke,” said St. Andrew’s pastor, and now rector, Father Kevin Segerblom.
From Roanoke to Rome
A committee began working on the application in the summer of 2021. Available from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the form had to be translated from Latin and required answers to 119 questions, such as the exact measurements of the stained-glass windows, the total number of pews and the history of the faith in the region.
Last November, it was submitted to Bishop Knestout for his approval. The application was sent to the Vatican in June and approved Sept. 6. The decision was revealed to St. Andrew’s parishioners at all the Masses Oct. 7-8.
Committee member and historian Michael Hancock-Parmer said he made several trips to the diocesan archives to help document St. Andrew’s past as “at heart an immigrant church, founded by railroad workers brought in from the north, most of them either Irish immigrants or second-generation Irish immigrants right around the 1880s, 1890s,” he said.
“I think that parish history probably spoke to Pope Francis’ call to be more welcoming” though he didn’t want to imply that he was “trying to get into his head,” he added.
The basilica initiative also came after a $7.7 million restoration of St. Andrew, including a new slate roof, repointing of the brick exterior, and cleaning and repainting of the interior.
“We do what we can to keep it going and I think being named a basilica is a nice call to arms for the local parishioners,” said Hancock-Parmer. “We have to take this seriously. This is not for us, this is for perpetuity, until the end of time.”
Humble and joyful reaction
For those who have been coming to St. Andrew for many years, and those who have just started, the new title is an honor and an affirmation.
Usher Larry Levy has been attending Mass here for about 35 years. “We’re very humbled to have the designation of a minor basilica,” he said.
“Certainly, the physical presence of the church, its architecture, its prominence on the hill overlooking all of Roanoke and its physical beauty are a part of it,” Levy explained. “But I’d also like to think that the role of the parish and what happens here within this building also have something to say about the fact that it’s been named a minor basilica.”
Kaycee and Dustin Barton started coming to Mass in January, are now enrolled in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and intend to be confirmed this Easter. “Even though we’ve been coming here for a while, I still catch myself looking up at the stained-glass windows,” Kaycee said. “When the sun hits it just right it will send you into a moment of awe.”
“The sun will reflect on certain pieces of the tabernacle or the high altar and shines through the colors and it’s phenomenal,” she added. “The building is gorgeous. It’s definitely a statement piece and it says: ‘we’re here’.”
Her husband also appreciates the style and history of the building. “It’s definitely a draw for us,” Dustin said. “And with it becoming a minor basilica, it’s definitely going to draw more people and give us more opportunity to grow the faith.”
Father Segerblom agrees that this new status will mean more visitors to St. Andrew and the church is making plans to keep the doors open longer on weekends to accommodate them.
“There are special blessings, indulgences attached to visiting a basilica on certain days throughout the year,” he said. “So pilgrims coming here first of all just to appreciate the church, to pray here, to have that connection with God, but then also hopefully to experience the celebration of the liturgy, particularly the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours here with us so we have the common experience of our worship of God in this special place.”
Pilgrims and parishioners will soon see some additions to the property emphasizing its connection to the pontiff. The symbols include the ombrellino (umbrella) – a canopy of red and yellow silk stripes; the tintinnabulum (bell); and crossed keys, an emblem of papal authority.
St. Andrew also needs its own coat of arms. Church leaders say they are hoping these symbols can be in place by Dec. 3, the day Bishop Knestout will preside at Mass and read the Vatican decree naming this “beacon of faith,” in his words, the latest basilica in the Roman Catholic Church.