Built on a burial ground, Norfolk's Basilica of St. Mary houses over 100 years of Black history. A new grant aims to preserve it.

The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, is a historically Black church that received a grant for preservation from the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, is a historically Black church that received a grant for preservation from the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. (Billy Schuerman/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS)

NORFOLK, Va. -- Saints glow in stained glass windows lining the newly pristine interior at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. The sheen of black-and-white marble tiles, a throwback to the Catholic church's original floor, captures the saints' reflections.

Oretha Pretlow often gazes at the spectral display during Mass.

"We have this idea that we're surrounded by a cloud of saints," said Pretlow, a lifelong parishioner and liturgical coordinator. In Catholicism, a saint might be canonized by the church, but the term also refers to anyone who had died and gone to heaven -- like those buried beneath historic church's floor.

"And then we find out, literally, we are," Pretlow said.

The Basilica of St. Mary has been a cornerstone for faith and service in the Black community and Norfolk for more than 100 years.

Now, on the heels of a multimillion-dollar project that addressed decades of disrepair and unearthed crypts beneath the sanctuary, the basilica is one of 35 houses of worship to receive grant money to preserve historic Black churches nationwide.

Other grantees include First Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, considered to be one of the oldest African American Baptist churches in the country, and Cory United Methodist Church, a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement in Cleveland, Ohio.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation granted $4 million to the 35 churches through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. It is the first phase of a $20 million investment into the fund by the Lilly Endowment to preserve Black churches.

"We plan to hire somebody on staff who's going to be able to maintain the church," said Jim Curran, parish priest. "The reason why the church was in such dire need was because there was nobody who was able to look and say, 'That's a bigger problem, we need to fix that.'"

"We don't want that to ever happen again."

St. Mary's received $150,000.

The grant statement also said it will help the church remain active during "a time of neighborhood change and racial displacement within the broader community."

St. Mary's, a gothic-style cathedral with a white spire stretching to the sky, stands in the shadow of a highway overpass and is an island in the middle of a once-bustling neighborhood. Construction of apartments to the east replace what Pretlow said was once more affordable housing. Eight apartment buildings, abandoned and boarded up, line the block behind the church.

Even in the isolating landscape, people still flock to St. Mary's. At a Mass in February, many in the congregation wore their Sunday best -- the kinds of outfits that would only be on display at Easter and Christmas in many other churches. On a weekday, people walk or bike to the church for the daily soup kitchen services.

The basilica feeds between 200 and 400 people per day, Pretlow said. St. Mary's also offers emergency funds to those in need for rent and utilities assistance.

The church's work in the community is supported by other fundraising, and the grant for the preservation will have nothing to do with that, Curran said. But the physical preservation of the sanctuary plays a role in the church's ongoing vitality.

The church recently underwent a nearly $7 million restoration.

In the 1960s, many Black parishioners attended a church called St. Joseph's in Norfolk, which was built during Reconstruction after the Civil War. But St. Joseph's was torn down in 1961, and parishioners were encouraged to attend St. Mary's at the same time as its white parishioners were leaving for other churches and the suburbs.

"Basically, this is where we came, and we inherited a church that was really run down," Pretlow said.

The church expanded its services to the poor in the subsequent years (under Father Thomas Quinlan, a popular and iconoclastic priest who led the parish from 1974-85). It also solidified its identity as a predominantly Black parish, blending traditional Catholic services with hallmarks of African American worship such as gospel music.

In 1991, the church was designated a basilica -- the first in Virginia, and to this day is the only Black basilica in the United States.

Even while the church was growing and changing, the building was falling into disrepair. Pretlow recalled one Sunday when a relief sculpture fell from the ceiling during Mass. After that, services were moved to a hall outside the main sanctuary until fixes were complete.

While renovations are about the future, the work at St. Mary's also unearthed some striking history.

Builders encountered crypts beneath the floor. St. Mary's was constructed on the ashes of St. Patrick's, a Catholic church that burned in 1858.

St. Patrick's was the only Catholic church in Norfolk at the time of its construction in 1842.

"It was the only place where Catholics could come," Curran said. "There were Haitians, there were Frenchmen, there were people from all different nationalities that were were attending."

"They didn't like that we had interracial masses."

St. Mary's wasn't quite built on the same footprint of where St. Patrick's once stood. It was built instead over its burial ground.

"I think the amazing thing about this is it's at the intersection of so many big issues and it has so many timely moments," said David Brown, an archeologist who led the excavation efforts.

Archeologists excavated six crypts, all in different burial conditions. Initial physical analysis suggests in least three of the six graves were people of African descent. More detailed DNA analysis will be available in April or May, Brown said.

Brown estimates there are anywhere between 50 and 75 crypts beneath the church.

The discovery sheds a new light on history.

"This seems to indicate that we had an interracial cemetery as well, which predates the Civil War," Curran said. "That would have been unheard of. It was pretty significant historically."

Before Mass at a Sunday service during Black History Month, Pretlow stood to make announcements. Amid reminders for upcoming conferences and meetings, Pretlow quoted Malcolm X: "'History is the people's memory,'" she said, "'and without a memory, man is demoted to the lower animals.'"

Learning more about their predecessors was important to the congregation.

"The church, by way of various meetings, agreed that we want to know more about the people that were here," Pretlow said. They decided to move forward with the archeological research.

"We did find out, as we had always suspected and heard, that there were Blacks here," she said.

"The congregation knows that this a hugely significant moment," Brown said. "They also know that while they care about learning the race of the individuals that are there, they already love and care for and respect all of them. ... We have this amazing opportunity to not only have something that's a pretty sensational story, but also just start that process of getting to know our past."

Curran echoed that sentiment.

"We do think of those people under there when we're at Mass," he said. "There's something beautiful in that."

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