Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Father James Curran sticks out.

He is the white rector of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, Norfolk, the only African American basilica in the nation, but his race is not the main reason he sticks out. He sticks out because of the work he does for social justice, the way he lives Catholic social teaching and the way he inspires others to do so as well.

“He is one of the jewels we have in our community,” said Norfolk Deputy City Manager James Rogers. “He is a man of God, and he really takes that work seriously. He believes everybody has the same rights, and he works to make that happen.”

That’s what prompted the Urban League of Hampton Roads, Inc., (ULHR) to honor him with its Community Leaders’ Award in January. He was among six people to receive the recognition this year for carrying on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. through community service, said Yvette Young, ULHR vice president. The organization works for social justice and economic equality.

However, Father Curran is not accepting credit for the award.

“The award is more of a reflection of my parish than it is of me,” he said. “I’m a leader of a parish who is so involved in social justice and in racial justice and in economic justice. It is such a great privilege for me to be a pastor of these people — a people that are so engaged in it.”

The basilica, which sits amid one of Norfolk’s low-income housing projects, serves a hot, nutritious lunch to 300 people per day four days a week. Its food pantry serves 500 households per week, and its resource ministry helps residents in the immediate vicinity in financial crises with bills, normally utility and rent, explained Nicole Drummond, the basilica’s office administrator and social justice ministry chair.

Parish already focused on service

Father Curran, 53, said he felt like he “was in heaven” when he was assigned to the basilica in 2012 because the parish already had the mindset of serving others and was already addressing the needs of the community.

“I support them, and I encourage them, and I do everything I can to make sure that continues, but that’s not me. I get the credit for it, and I get the award for it, but this was going on before I got here, and hopefully it will continue long after I’m gone,” he said. “I stand on the strong shoulders of pastors who came before me who built that, and I stand on the shoulders of the community who just understands.”

Father Curran has made a mark on the surrounding community, the city and beyond as he works for social justice. He has raised awareness of Catholic social teaching, particularly as it pertains to the Civil Rights Movement, through a variety of venues. For example, he was a panelist on First Presbyterian Church’s forum in Norfolk on race, politics and faith. In 2016, he was a panelist on the radio talk show “Another View” for the segment called “Race, Religion, Relationship and (Hope for Redemption).”

In 2014, he hosted a workshop on “Racial Society – Becoming the Change You Want to See” at the basilica. Last fall he was the guest speaker in Washington, D.C., for the Million Youth Peace March that involved youth marches in cities across the world.

As one of more than 20 ministers on the city manager’s Pastors’ Roundtable, Father Curran, by sharing his perspective on issues, weighs in on how Norfolk can meet the needs of individuals living in poverty. He is also in a smaller group of the roundtable that works with city officials to address the concerns of the approximately 4,600 residents living in the city’s low-income housing projects as the first phase of revitalization of those developments draws near.

Impact of Irish roots

The obligation to respect and help one another was ingrained in him in childhood, Father Curran said. The third of eight children, he grew up on Long Island in a family that practiced the Catholic faith daily. His mother would not allow any of the children to leave in the morning until they had said their morning prayers and had breakfast — even if it meant they would have to walk to school because they missed the bus. The family went to Mass together, and they prayed the rosary together during Advent and Lent.

“It was who we were,” he said. “It defined everything about us.”

His family was Irish – his mother and paternal grandparents “were right off the boat.” As such, he said, he was raised in an environment where families helped each other. He was taught that everyone was worthy of the same dignity and opportunities as others, and that individuals had the responsibility to ensure that was a reality.

“The Irish have a particular passion for justice and for feeding the poor, feeding the hungry, and taking care of one another,” he said. “There’s a deep, deep sympathy for people who are mistreated, who are oppressed and who are hungry. It’s deep in the Irish culture, Irish psyche, that compassion. That was the air we breathed, that we take care of one another.”

Father Curran said he wasn’t aware of distressed race relations until he was in middle school. He grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s on a block that was 1/3 white, 1/3 black and 1/3 Puerto Rican. All of the youth played together and visited each other at their homes.

“Everybody was treated the same,” he said.

In seventh grade, after being expelled from a Catholic school due to behavioral issues, he attended public school for a year. There, students drew themselves together in groups of like color. For example, at lunch the students separated themselves: black students at their own tables, white students at theirs; and Puerto Ricans at theirs.

“The groups didn’t do anything together,” he said.

In the fall of his junior year, he once again was expelled from Catholic school, this time for organizing a student walk-out in response to a teacher strike. Back in public school for the remainder of high school, he found racial separation was not as prevalent as before.

Desire for priesthood reignited

Following graduation from high school in 1983, he joined the Navy, where individuals from different races naturally came together as the sailors trained and worked together, and relied on each other as they shared a common mission, he said.

His four-year enlistment, during which he worked in communications, brought him to Norfolk. Afterward, he remained in Hampton Roads, working as a flight dispatcher for an airline at Patrick Henry Field, now known as Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport, until 1993.

As a young adult, he strayed from the Catholic Church. Eventually, he went to a Mass in response to his fiance’s frequent invitations to do so.

“Once I walked in, I wondered, ‘Why did I ever leave in the first place?’” he said. “I didn’t even realize that this big hole was in my heart until I walked back into the church.”

He began reading the Bible regularly, praying more reverently and going to daily Masses. His social circle became his church friends. His desire to become a priest, a thought that first came to him when he was eight years old, was reignited. One day at Mass at the Catholic Worker in Norfolk, “things just snapped,” and his decision was made, he said.

Following seven years of seminary studies, Father Curran was ordained in 2000. He has served as a chaplain at the College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, and James Madison University, Harrisonburg, as an associate pastor at St. Bede, Williamsburg, and as pastor of St. Joan of Arc, Yorktown. In addition to being the basilica rector, he is chaplain for St. Patrick School, Norfolk.

‘Impact player’

Father Curran said he was not a leader in social justice until he came to the basilica because this assignment opened the door to opportunities for advocacy.

“The only reason I get asked to do these things is because of where I am and because of the people that I serve here,” he said.

Bruce Williams, spokesman for the annual ULHR Martin Luther King Jr. Community Leaders’ Breakfast, called Father Curran an “impact player.”

“He’s the kind of servant leader that when you walk into a room, you know he will be focused on trying to help, to listen, and to provide the best knowledge and the best feedback,” Williams said. “He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work on a problem.”

Steve Hammond, a basilica parishioner and St. Patrick School principal, described Father Curran as “a spirit-filled priest who loves the Church, who loves the Gospel, who loves people and is eager to expend his time and energy to serve them.”

The priest’s homilies are powerful, according to Hammond, and they touch the heart of everyone who listens.

“He is encouraging, challenging and exhorting. He lets people know very clearly that if they call themselves Christian, then there’s an action element that you must serve the poor and the disenfranchised and the alienated,” he said.

James Gray, parish council president, described Father Curran as a “very gifted, charismatic person” who relates to the entire community, not just to Catholics.

“I think it resonates well, and he is very well accepted,” he said.