Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

A construction crew working on the renovation of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, struck history last October when a jackhammer used to break up a concrete floor unearthed a brick, vaulted drain dating to the late 18th to early 19th century. 

Further work also revealed three crypts beneath the concrete, grouped at the back of the sanctuary of the 158-year-old church, home of the oldest parish in the Diocese of Richmond. 

“This is history,” said Father James Curran, pastor at St. Mary. “We’re excited to learn more about what’s been uncovered and to see what light it might shed on the church’s past.” 

Father Curran said that the parish has asked the Fairfield Foundation, a nonprofit center for archelogy and preservation based in Gloucester, to help to assess the finds. 

Unearthing the past

The renovation of St. Mary, which began in 2014, was initially slated to be completed within five years. As the work began, however, crews discovered major structural defects to the building, and although immediate repairs were made to the church’s leaky roof, the damage was extensive. 

“All the wood had rotted through,” Father Curran said. “It took two years to build the church, but it’s taken five to rebuild it as it’s standing.” 

It’s been a project fraught with challenges and surprises, Father Curran said, but parishioners hardly expected the work to reveal hitherto unknown layers of history, long hidden beneath the church’s floors. 

“Very little archeological work has been done in Norfolk,” said Dr. David Brown, an archeologist with the Fairfield Foundation. “It’s always a surprise when such things are uncovered, but later, we realize it’s not a shock that they should be there.”

Brown explained that similar drains have been found elsewhere in Virginia — at the plantations of Robert “King” Carter in Lancaster County and at Roswell Plantation in Gloucester County. 

The drain is about three feet wide and four feet tall and leads in the direction of the Elizabeth River. With its brick arching walls, it resembles nothing so much as a tunnel running beneath the church. “The drain is dry and large enough for a person to get through,” said Father Curran. “Norfolk was well-known as a hub of the Underground Railroad, so the question is, could it have been used as a tunnel? Given the history of parish, it’s interesting to think about.”

If the walls could talk

The parish of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception began as St. Patrick Church, founded in 1791 by French Catholics fleeing the French Revolution. In a few years, they were joined by the nation’s first wave of Irish immigrants. 

During the mid-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 Father O’Keefe’s practice of celebrating integrated Masses at the church. 

Despite ongoing threats and harassment, Father O’Keefe refused to hold segregated Masses and instead requested police protection.

“A few weeks later, the church was burned down,” Father Curran said. “It was widely believed at the time to have been the work of the Know-Nothings.” 

St. Patrick Church was burned on Dec. 8, 1856. Two years later, the parish completed a new church building, the present-day basilica, and named it St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception after the dogma proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX.

“It’s most likely impossible to know if the drain could ever have been used as a tunnel,” Father Curran said, “but considering the times, it does pose an interesting question.” 

If there ever could be a way to find such a connection, the historical record would be the place to look rather than to the archeological one, Brown explained. 

“Because of the transient nature of such activity, it’s nearly impossible to say if it was ever used as tunnel,” he said. 

Unless someone actually carved their initials into the walls of the drain, Brown explained, there’s no way of knowing if people ever traveled through it. Even artifacts that might be found in the drain may not have been dropped there, but rather may have simply washed into the drainage system.

The crypts, however, may have a more definitive story to tell.  

“The basilica was not built on the exact footprint of the old St. Patrick’s church,” Father Curran said. “It’s believed that the land the new church was built on was once owned by free blacks. It’s possible that the remains were removed when the church was built, or they might still be in place.” 

He said that the parish plans to have one of the crypts exhumed. If it’s empty, it will be assumed that all of the crypts were emptied at the time of the basilica’s construction, and they will simply be left in place. 

“If any remains are found,” Father Curran said, “we’d like to explore the possibility of DNA testing to learn more about who might be buried there. We’d like to determine whatever we can to know who is here, buried beneath our church.”

Light at the end of the tunnel

Even as the Fairfield Foundation works to investigate the crypts and the drainage tunnel, work on the basilica continues. 

“We’re there to monitor and to document what is found,” Brown said, “and to assist with preservation. Everyone is very intrigued, but, at the same time, there’s an expensive renovation underway, so we’re keeping that in mind.”  

Father Curran said that while parishioners are excited to see what new chapters the discoveries might bring to light in telling the story of the basilica’s past, their priority is on preserving the historic landmark for the future. 

The parish has been celebrating Mass in the fellowship hall for the past two years, he said, and everyone is eager for the sanctuary to be completed. 

“The renovations are all still very much underway,” Father Curran said. “We’re working around the site until we have the chance to have it excavated further. We’re excited to find out as much about it as we possibly can.”