An immigrant parish, burnt down, with only the crucifix remaining. A parish rebuilt, transformed and a key part in giving back to the community. In a sense, one parish’s story of struggle, pressure and rebirth is metaphor for the American Catholic experience.
St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, is the only black Catholic church in the United States that is also a basilica. Its dramatic history captures both the broader American Catholic history of persecution, growth and acceptance, but also a witness to the unique challenges faced by black Catholics over the centuries.
Founded originally as St. Patrick’s Parish in 1791, it is the oldest Catholic parish in the Diocese of Richmond, predating the foundation of the diocese by nearly 30 years.
“Catholicism was not legal to practice” in Virginia when the colony was founded, said Fr. Jim Curran, rector of the basilica. In much of Colonial America, before the Revolution and the signing of the Bill of Rights, churches that were not approved by the government were prohibited from operating, he told CNA.
The land originally bought in 1794 for the parish is the same ground on which the basilica today stands. From the beginning, according to the parish’s history, Catholics from all backgrounds worshiped together: Irish and German immigrants, free black persons and slaves.
However, by the 1850s, the parish’s immigrant background and mixed-race parish drew the ire of a prominent anti-Catholic movement: the Know-Nothings.
Largely concentrated in northeastern states where the immigrant influx was greatest, the movement rose and fell quickly. Concerned with maintaining the Protestant “purity of the nation,” it worked to prevent immigrants – many of whom were Catholic – from gaining the right to vote, becoming citizens, or taking elected office.
“I consider the Know-Nothings to be a sort of gatekeeper organization, by which I mean that they were both anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic at the same time,” said Fr. David Endres, an assistant professor of Church History and Historical Theology at the Athenaeum of Ohio.
He told CNA that the Know-Nothing Party was able to bring together both pro- and anti-slavery voters in the mid-1800s, united in the common “dislike of foreign-born and Catholics.”
While most anti-Catholic activities took the form of defamatory speeches and public discrimination, the prejudice sometimes turned to violence and mob action, Fr. Endres explained.
The anti-Catholic discrimination and threats found their way to St. Patrick’s doorstep, where the Know-Nothings were unhappy that the pastor was allowing racially integrated Masses, said Fr. Curran.
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