This is Our Story

– Molly Pyle, Special to the Catholic Virginian

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles offering readers glimpses into the diocese’s history via entertaining and enlightening vignettes focusing on important, though little-known, events.

Recently, I traveled to Norfolk and Portsmouth to meet parishioners at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception; Holy Angels Parish, Portsmouth; and St. Mary Parish, Chesapeake, whose ancestors were early members of these Tidewater parishes. My conversations evoked lore and personal perspectives concerning moments in diocesan history.

One such conversation, conducted during a tour of the basilica, conveyed the strong feelings many parishioners have about their pastors, the historical parish community, the physical church structure, and its ministries. Not surprisingly, basilica parishioners have strong feelings for and beliefs about the history of the “mother church of the Tidewater.”

Its pastors, parishioners and ministries form a story of inspiring human accomplishment. The basilica is an immense and glorious neo-Gothic structure. On the morning of my visit, its spire pierced a cloudless blue sky. I was moved, gazing on this treasure rising amid a struggling urban neighborhood. I wondered about the lore concerning this church.

Reginald Ruffins, a docent at the basilica, was my guide. He spoke about the parish’s soup kitchen, pointing to preparations underway. In a few hours, some 200 people, mostly women and children, would gather for a noon meal, offered daily for residents in need.

We were joined by Ricardo Givens, a long-time member of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception and its youth minister. He is also  the Catholic campus minister at Norfolk State. His father and grandmother joined the basilica around 1961, after their parish, St. Joseph, Norfolk, an African American parish, closed.

Ruffins was also a member of St. Joseph’s, as well as a graduate of its parochial school.  After the closure, he joined the basilica, and then transferred to Holy Angels Parish, Portsmouth, where he serves on the parish council, as does Mike Kirsch, who also joined us for the tour.

Overcoming Yellow Fever, fire

On his tour, Ruffins related some little-known stories indirectly related to one remarkable feat in diocesan history. St. Mary’s Basilica was built in two years, after the original church, St. Patrick’s, burned to the ground in 1856.      The new church was dedicated to Mary of the Immaculate Conception. Its rebuilding was largely the accomplishment of Father Matthew  J. O’keefe.

Father O’Keefe, an Irishman, was commissioned by the Archdiocese of Baltimore to the Richmond Diocese to serve as pastor of St. Patrick’s. He arrived in 1855, the same year    Norfolk and Portsmouth were afflicted with the Yellow Fever epidemic.

Before considering Father O’Keefe’s heroic service during the epidemic, insights about him may be gathered by considering possible explanations for the alleged burning of St. Patrick’s in 1856. There are few facts, much conjecture.

While it is known the arsonist set fire to the building next to the church, Father Fogarty conceded: “It’s not certain that St. Patrick’s was the target.” Nevertheless, in analyzing what might have happened, Father Fogarty noted that days prior to the burning, St. Patrick’s had sponsored a series of lectures directed at non-Catholics, given by Isaac Thomas Hecker, nationally known for his conversion efforts among Protestants. Sponsoring such conferences may well have been unacceptable to the nativist Know Nothing Party, causing them to burn the church.

Ruffins suggested the arsonist may well have burned St. Patrick’s in protest against Father O’Keefe’s regard for African Americans. He pointed out Father O’Keefe refused to have a segregated congregation: black and white congregants received the Eucharist at the same altar, although they were seated separately, as required by law.

Courage in service

Ruffins also shared that near the basilica is  a “hidden” African American cemetery on land purchased by Father O’Keefe. It’s not found in the diocesan records, but it is in the city’s database.

“Playing in the area as a youngster, I remember seeing headstones, though in the intervening years they’ve disappeared. Around a hundred people are buried there,” he said.

On the tour, Ruffins reflected on the burning of St. Patrick’s in the context of the courageous ministry of Father O’Keefe to all  residents, including African Americans. From “Commonwealth Catholicism” we know that during the Yellow Fever epidemic, while many clergymen fled, Father O’Keefe was among the few who remained in the city, nursing the sick, burying the dead.

Karen Paige Womack, also a member of the basilica, formerly of St. Joseph’s, separately corroborated the existence of the cemetery. Her great grandfather, as county commissioner, sold the burial ground land to Father O’Keefe.

Womack has done extensive research into the history of Norfolk’s free black community. She’s motivated not only by personal interest in her family history, but also by a desire to educate young African Americans about their history.

Later that morning, as Kirsch drove across the bridge to Portsmouth en route to Holy Angels Parish, St. Mary’s steeple, with its brass cross, rose behind us. It’s visible across the interstate, a reminder to travelers, as Ruffins pointed out, that Mass is being celebrated at the altar inside, directly under that cross.

One hopes the diocesan history, particularly the basilica’s history, will engender some engagement on the part of the thousands who traverse that interstate everyday, inspired by lore about God’s presence in our lives.

What is a basilica?

A basilica is a church building that has been accorded special privileges by the pope. The world’s four major basilicas are St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major, all in Rome.

Minor basilicas are traditionally named because of their antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural and artistic worth, and/or significance as centers of worship.

Three physical signs indicate that a church is a minor basilica. The first is the presence of the conopaeum — a silk canopy designed with stripes of yellow and red, traditional papal colors. The second is the tintinnabulum, or bell. It is mounted on a pole and carried processionally, along with the conopaeum, at the head of the clergy on special occasions. Third, minor basilicas have the right to display the papal symbol — crossed keys — on banners, furnishings, and the seal of the basilica.

– From the Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul, Chattanooga, Tenn.