Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception
History and museums
The Minor Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception, located at 232 Chapel Street in downtown Norfolk, in southeastern Virginia is the oldest Roman Catholic parish community in the Diocese of Richmond. It is known locally as The Mother Church of Tidewater Virginia.
The church was built in 1857-1858, and is a rectangular stuccoed brick church. It features a centrally located, three-stage tower with spire. Also on the property is the contributing rectory. It is a three-story, rectangular brick building in the Late Gothic Revival style.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The associated Saint Mary's Catholic Cemetery was added in 2001.
The parish began in 1791 as Saint Patrick Church founded by French Catholics fleeing the French Revolution who were joined by some of the earliest Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States. St. Patrick's was the oldest parish in the Richmond Diocese and predated the formation of the diocese by 29 years.
The first church ediface was built in 1842, but was destroyed by fire in 1856. The present building was completed in 1858 and was rededicated under the title of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception in commemoration of the Marian dogma proclaimed in 1854 by Pope Pius IX.
Since it was in the Southern United States, the racially segregated Christian church was for whites only. Fr. Matthew O’Keefe initiated permitting African American Catholics to sit in an assigned portion of the choir loft for their use only. Local Know Nothing movement anti-Catholics threatened him unless the church instituted segregated Masses, which he refused. Thugs tried to intimidate white parishioners until Fr. O’Keefe obtained police protection. Diocesan records show that local Catholic families believed the Know Nothings ignited the fire that destroyed St. Patrick’s in 1856. "The Assumption," a painting donated by King Louis Philippe and Queen Amélie of France, fell victim to the flames.
The Josephite Fathers arrived in Norfolk from Richmond in 1889. By September of that year, the separate Saint Joseph's Black Catholic parish was founded to serve the religious needs of the city's African American community.
In 1961, seventy-two years after its founding, Saint Joseph's Black Catholic parish was clustered with Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception. After an extensive renovation and restoration program, the newly renovated and restored edifice was rededicated on November 1, 1989. Today, St. Mary's Catholic Church is ninety-nine percent African American congregants.
The parish formerly supported St. Mary Academy, an inner-city school that provided a Christian education to hundreds of urban children, most of whom were non-Catholic; however, circumstances forced the academy to close. The parish also operates a soup kitchen and provides other outreach to Norfolk's poor and homeless.
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the Church, December 8, 1991, Pope John Paul II proclaimed the Church of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception a minor basilica, the only one in the Commonwealth of Virginia.