Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Though demolished nearly 60 years ago, St. Joseph Catholic Church and School in Norfolk remain steadfast in the memories of its former parishioners and students. They remember the parish and school that served the black community during segregation as their spiritual core, a hub of social activity and a place where students were taught that they could be all they aspired to be.
Such was the rich history celebrated at the dedication of a historical marker honoring the church and school Wednesday, Nov. 28 in Norfolk. Approximately 100 people, mostly former students and parishioners, according to Norfolk city historian Peggy McPhillips, attended.
St. Joseph Parish and School were established in 1889 by the Society of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart (commonly known as the Josephites), which, their website explains, “is a congregation of priests and brothers whose exclusive mission is to serve the African American community.” At that time black Catholics worshipped from a portion of the choir loft at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, now a minor basilica, in Norfolk which had an otherwise all-white congregation.
St. Joseph Parish traces its roots to the mid-1880s when Josephite Superior General Father John Slattery determined that a parish to serve black Catholics should be established in Norfolk as part of a developing chain of Virginia missions. About that same time, Richmond Bishop John J. Keane directed the pastor of St. Mary to open a mission school for black children, which alumna Melvina Herbert, the impetus behind the marker, said the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore soon “took over.” When the Josephites established St. Joseph Catholic Church, the school, which educated lower elementary grades, became part of the parish, she said.
The historical marker states that in 1893 a two-story brick building housing the chapel and school on Queen Street, now Brambleton Avenue, was dedicated. The building had a church on the first floor and a four-room school on the second. In the years that followed, the building underwent several renovations, and space was rented nearby to accommodate the growing number of parishioners and students.
By 1924, St. Joseph School educated students from elementary through high school. In some years, enrollment was so high that the school could not accommodate every child wishing to attend. In 1931, St. Joseph School’s enrollment reached an all-time high of 850 students.
While the school remained on Queen Street, a former Methodist Church at the intersection of East Freemason and Cumberland streets was purchased in 1932 to be the church’s new home. The historical plaque marks the spot.
St. Joseph Church and School closed in 1961 due to an urban renewal project in downtown Norfolk. Scope Arena was built on what was the school grounds and rectory, the luxury hotel Golden Triangle replaced the convent and the land where the church was is now part of the MacArthur Center shopping mall area, Herbert said.
According to the Josephite archival documents, “the diocese turned over the St. Mary’s Plant to St. Joseph’s Parish at this time.” “The ‘old St. Joseph’s plant’” was sold for redevelopment and proceeds were used to build an additional school (now closed) at St. Mary. The Franciscan Sisters left, but the Josephites served at St. Mary until 1974 when the parish came under the diocese again.
Although they were eventually physically separate, the school and church were one community with a sense of family, Herbert said. Her family worshipped at St. Joseph, and she attended its school from first through seventh grade when it closed.
Alumni described the community as “close-knit” and a place where life-long friendships began. They said the church and school brought families together for dances, picnics and fund-raisers, some of which aided the school’s band and football team.
The band, formed in 1923 under the helm of the parish’s pastor Father Vincent Warren, performed throughout the area as well as in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington and, alumnus Glen Mason said, at the first Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
In 1926, Father Warren was kidnapped by the Klu Klux Klan but was released “after being questioned at length and told of the group’s objection to ‘white people associating with Negroes,’” according to a basilica history book excerpt provided by the Richmond Diocese’s archives.
Despite such trouble, alumni have mostly fond memories of the church and school.
They said at the end of each school year, the school had a commencement ceremony for all students in which each class performed a skit or a dance based on a common theme such as Broadway shows, literature or geography.
Herbert said the Franciscan Sisters along with the church community emboldened students to pursue their aspirations. Armed with confidence and what Mason described as “a world-class education,” they achieved careers that included religious life, education, law, city management, engineering and journalism, alumni said.
But education went past academia. The church and school produced individuals ready for a changing world. For example, Herbert explained, the sisters and priests taught her to respectfully speak up for what she “believes is right.”
“They always taught us that we had to talk and speak and express our desires and wishes in an appropriate way. They taught us how people should be treated. They taught the students that they had rights as human beings,” Herbert said. “In the world of then, the church and school prepared me to be a strong person.”
Similarly, Angela Christian, who attended St. Joseph School until 1961, from the first to sixth grade, praised the St. Joseph community.
“I honestly believe for me that it made me a better person,” she said.
Editor’s note: Unless otherwise noted, information for this article came from a parish history and a school history from the Josephite archives.