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August 6, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 20

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photo: The former Franciscan convent which recently has been used as a transitional housing program known as Sean’s Place.
The former Franciscan convent which recently has been used as a transitional housing program known as Sean’s Place.

Diocese to preserve Black Catholic historic site

The Catholic Diocese of Richmond has completed negotiations with Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority to sell a property in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood as The Catholic Virginian was going to press Aug. 1.

The property was once the site of the former Van de Vyver Institute and the former St. Joseph’s Church, a parish which served African American Catholics during the days of a segregated society.

The purchase price is $600,000.

photo: Under the bell tower (inset) is the plaque which designates the history of the bell.
Under the bell tower (inset) is the plaque which designates the history of the bell.

The property, located at 713 N. 1st Street, includes a two-story brick building more recently known as Sean’s Place, a transitional housing program for men and women seeking to become self-sufficient.

Originally built as a convent for the Franciscan Sisters who staffed the former St. Joseph’s School and the later Van de Vyver Institute, the building is adjacent to a green area known as St. Joseph Memorial Park.

The program known as Sean’s Place, operated by Freedom House since 1993, was to vacate the property by Aug. 1.

“The Diocese has been a wonderful partner all these years and we appreciate and cherish the support that you have provided us,” said Melba Gibbs, executive director of Freedom House, adding that it “was not in a position to purchase the property at this time.”

Prior to the sale, the Diocese had asked Commonwealth Catholic Charities if it would be interested in using the building when it became vacant. But after a tour of the 100-year-old building Joanne Nattrass, executive director of CCC, and other agency officials felt it would be too costly to refurbish the building.

The Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority is buying the property to gain the last large piece of land in what it calls the Jackson Place redevelopment area. It has been seeking to redevelop the area since 1991 and this site is directly adjacent to other property it owns.

The Diocese has stipulated in its sales contract that the new owner preserve the memorial steeple bell from the old St. Joseph’s Church which the diocese closed on June 1, 1969 to promote racial integration. At that time St. Joseph’s parishioners were encouraged to register at the closest Catholic parish to their home.

photo: The memorial paving bricks surround the bell.
The memorial paving bricks surround the bell.

“Incorporating the names St. Joseph Place and Van de Vyver would be an additional way to acknowledge this site’s important contribution to the lives of so many members of our community,” Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo said in a letter to Adrienne E. Goolsby, chief executive officer of the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

The old St. Joseph’s Church, established in 1884, was known to be “the first Catholic church for people of color in the South,” according to a statement made at the St. Joseph’s Memorial Park dedication in July 1997 by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

In 1910 the new Van de Vyver Institute, named in honor of then Bishop Augustine Van de Vyver, sixth Bishop of Richmond, was opened with an enrollment of 600 primary and high school students. The school was closed along with St. Joseph’s Church in June 1969.

In his letter to Ms. Goolsby, Bishop DiLorenzo spoke of the historic significance of the Jackson Ward property.

photo: St. Joseph’s Memorial Park on the grounds of the former St. Joseph’s Church.
St. Joseph’s Memorial Park on the grounds of the former St. Joseph’s Church.

“This was a difficult and emotional time for Richmond’s Black Catholics,” he wrote, calling to mind the closing of both St. Joseph’s and Van de Vyver.

“Thus, in an effort to preserve the heritage and to recognize the importance of this historic site, the St. Joseph Memorial Committee, with the support of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, erected a memorial in 1997.”

Bishop DiLorenzo met recently with members of the St. Joseph Memorial Park Committee to seek their advice in determining future use of the property.

Doris Bates, a member of St. Paul’s Parish in Richmond and member of the St. Joseph Memorial Park committee, attended the meeting. She remembers well the sadness she and other black Catholics felt when the church was razed after its closing. Then two years later the Van de Vyver Institute was destroyed in a fire and later razed.

“It’s a historic place,” Mrs. Bates told The Catholic Virginian. “We worked hard to help people remember that this was the first African American Catholic church in the South.

“It seems to me that they should never have torn the church down,” she continued. “But this is all we have left and we want to preserve our proud history.”

Bishop DiLorenzo stated that the pastoral plan of the Diocese of Richmond includes five traditionally Black Catholic parishes, one of which is intentionally comprised of Black and Caucasian Catholics. There are also two Catholic grade schools in the Richmond area, All Saints and St. Joseph School in Petersburg with a substantial number of Black students.

The RRHA as a part of the agreement has agreed to leave the bell memorial undisturbed and will grant the right to access the memorial to the Diocese and others. Bishop DiLorenzo will establish a perpetual care fund with a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the property to maintain the memorial.

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