St Mary's Basilica

St. Mary’s in Virginia becomes the first African American Church to have the title “Basilica” bestowed upon it.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia represents a blend of old European Catholic traditions with soulful and animated African-American Christian worship. With its predominantly black congregation led by a white Irish-American priest, the impressive church was only recently named a “basilica” by Pope Francis, making it the first African-American church in America to receive this recognition.

This also makes St. Mary’s, the “Mother Church” of Catholicism in Virginia, the first church in the state to be named a basilica. In the Roman Catholic faith, a basilica is a parish that has been officially recognized by the Pope as an important place of pilgrimage and worship. Churches of spiritual and cultural significance are chosen as basilicas due to their architectural and historical importance. Once named, a basilica serves as a treasured historic site for Catholics, many of whom will travel to visit and pay tribute to the honored places of worship. There are less than 1,500 such churches in the world, making the title of “basilica” a cherished and prestigious nomination.

Exhibiting traditional European Gothic architecture, St. Mary’s has stood the test of time. Originally constructed in 1842, the church was destroyed in a fire in 1856 and was rebuilt in its current form two years later. Since then, the church has stood as a bulwark of tradition as the world ebbed and flowed around it. In its 156-year history, the parish has seen a burgeoning and changing community, urban growth, and even the chaos of armed conflict, with the church having survived the destruction caused by the American Civil War. Blacks began attending the church in 1886, but constructed their own church a few years later. When that was razed in 1961, the black congregation moved to St. Mary’s, and the parish is now predominantly African-American.

The number of African-American Catholics in the United States is relatively small, only numbering about 2 million, while ten times as many African Americans belong to various Protestant denominations. Nonetheless, what they lack in numbers, the African-American Catholics at St. Mary’s make up for in soulful worship. Church-goers will find the congregation and even the clergy jumping, clapping, and dancing along with the choir, adding their own spirit to the traditional Catholic hymns. Reverend James Curran, the priest at St. Mary’s, said, “This is a Catholic Mass, but done unlike anything you’ve ever seen. There are times when I have to look down to see if my feet are still on the ground.”

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