Photos by Angela Douglas Photography
It wasn’t Father Jim’s three-legged Golden Retriever named Trinity who met me at the top of the stairs on the first rain-chilled afternoon that I visited St. Mary’s. And it wasn’t the Father’s spontaneous invitation to travel to Rome with members of the church over what, coincidentally, would have been my 26th wedding anniversary in September and where my husband and I would have spent our 25th, had he not suddenly died some six weeks prior. It wasn’t even Father Jim’s pronouncement that, before being called to the priesthood, if he was in a church on Sunday morning, it was because he had passed out on the steps the night before.
No. Though all that played a role, it was something more that captured my heart and mind. Something nearly ineffable. Something, dare I say, spiritual.
St. Mary’s began its life in 1791 as St. Patrick’s Church, a community of faithful French Catholic refugees—without a proper church building. These individuals—slave owners and slaves—were deposited by the French navy in Norfolk, having fled the Haitian Revolution in the French colony, St. Domingue. There, on the island, the French Revolution of 1789 had split the white minority into Royalists and Revolutionaries. With their island nation divided, the slaves sensed an opportunity and staged a massive rebellion.
The original St. Mary’s church was built in 1842, destroyed by fire in 1856—only a wooden crucifix survived—and rebuilt in 1858. African-American Catholics began attending the church in 1886, consigned to a portion of the balcony. Three years later, the Josephites began coming from Richmond, founding St. Joseph's Black Catholic parish to serve the spiritual needs of the black community. In 1961, St. Joseph's merged with St. Mary’s, and on November 1, 1989, the newly renovated/restored edifice was rededicated.
Shortly thereafter, on December 8, 1991, the 200th anniversary of the church, the pope bestowed on St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception the designation of Minor Basilica, making it the only African-American basilica in the U.S. and a place of pilgrimage recognized for its distinguished nature. But nearly two decades later, the stately structure is in critical need of major repair.
Wrapped by the City Hall ramp of I-264, its red Jubilee Doors shining like a beacon against the white walls of this handsome Neo-Gothic structure with its proud spire, this “Mother Church of Catholicism in Hampton Roads” is tucked into the Tidewater Gardens housing project. However, its predominately African-American worship community of some 900 households pulls from as far away as Williamsburg and North Carolina.
To refer to my first introduction to Father Jim Curran, who is white, and his parish staff, who are African American, as an interview is like calling a family reunion a panel discussion. Warmly greeted by the priest; Reverend Calvin Bailey, deacon; Oretha B. Pretlow, pastoral associate; and Raquel “Rocki” Mayner, development director; as well as two canine companions winding around my legs, I was quickly swept up in their convivial midst as we assembled into a motley walking party en route from the church offices to the basilica in a spring shower.
Inside, we seated ourselves at the foot of the altar, some of us in the first pew and some in a row of chairs facing the pews, the original stained glass windows of German provenance warming the otherwise gray light. There Oretha offered this observation, which seemed a metaphor for so much of what we had gathered to share: “We have a tradition of looking backward and forward. The balcony up there represents our past because that’s where we were relegated. And look at us today.”
As I reluctantly left some 90 minutes later, I knew I would return. So, while every Sunday morning finds me, religiously, in my 9 a.m. yoga class, that was not the case on May 22. On that morning, having promised my friend Jill Tiderman the night before that we would attend the 9 a.m. service together as part of my research for this story, I felt a flutter of anticipation.
When we arrived, we were embraced on many levels, including by what Jill dubbed Father Jim’s “Heimlich Hug,” dislodging any doubt about whether we should be there. Slipped into what she described as a “nicely salt and pepper” congregation—black sheep, white sheep, we are all welcome at St. Mary’s—I felt lifted up by her angelic voice. Not a singer myself—not even in the shower—as Jill’s beautiful voice comingled with hundreds of other worshipers’, they carried my most ardent private hopes and aspirations into the ether. As I wiped away a tear, I spied another glistening between the folds of skin on the face of a man in front of me.
While I can’t sing, I can dance, and I found myself—in quite good company—letting the spirit move me, clapping, swaying and, quite honestly, grooving to any number of hymns. Raised in a United Methodist Church where every hymn sounded like a dirge, if I were a deity, I would want to be praised the St. Mary’s way. No Hollywood Sister Act cliché of a “black church,” this congregation’s outpouring is personal, unrehearsed and idiosyncratic, though anchored by a well-rehearsed gospel choir—one of some seven—and, on this Sunday, a drummer, all under the powerful direction of Sammie L. Logan, Jr., a gifted pianist and singer.
As the last strains of one particularly rousing hymn hung in the air, I became aware of a fluttering of indistinguishable murmurings moving randomly through the nave. In time, the utterings of “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” became barely audible, passing from one parishioner to another. Then, suddenly, one female worshiper’s voice rose loudly above the others in a kind of ecstatic glory until its crescendo was subsumed by enthusiastic and appreciative applause. Father Jim spoke the truth when he asserted that they practice a “very traditional liturgy,” but with a certain “freedom” and “an invitation to let it all go.” Deacon Bailey seconded: “We don’t take anything away, but we add.”
Still, though, Father Jim asserts, “It is not all emo. Your intellect is fully engaged and energized, and your body is fully engaged and energized. It is the fullness of being, and it is what the Catholic Mass was supposed to be, the vision of Vatican II … And it is stunning … a mystical appeal that goes beyond conservative Catholic and liberal Catholic.”
But what happens on Sunday morning is not the total expression of a community of faithful. “So much of our identity is our neighbors,” avows Father Jim of the inhabitants of Tidewater Gardens and the surrounding area. These residents benefit from a list of outreach ministries a mile long, all folded into the church’s mere $1 million annual budget. Under the direction of Ercelle Drayton, the Soup Kitchen feeds “3,000 hungry mouths” every month while the Food Pantry serves another 3,000 members of the working poor, and the Nest Project houses the homeless in the fellowship hall where “they are treated as guests because that’s how we see them.” In addition, Senior Meals, a Youth Ministry and a summer program that nourishes kids when they are out of school are just a few of the ways St. Mary’s feeds the multitudes.
While the City of Norfolk “keeps talking about redevelopment, which is exciting,” Father Jim can’t help but wonder “what our identity is going to be” when that happens. Yet, Deacon Bailey reflects that, as the neighborhood has changed over the decades, “The church has been a constant.” But the last 150 years have taken a toll on the building, if not the people, causing Father Jim to declare that St. Mary’s biggest challenges are structural. The ribs of the soaring vault have rotted from water damage. To save it will cost $2 million, only $1.2 million of which has been raised so far.
Father Jim’s homily on the Sunday I visited—delivered with passion and humor and without notes—linked Christ’s disciples, married couples and his own experience upon arriving at St. Mary’s and discovering the depth—or perhaps height—of the structural challenges through this theme: thank goodness we fall in love first … before we find out how hard it is going to be. “Relatable,” as Rocki promised, this priest’s impassioned and compelling rhetorical style has led at least one visitor to question whether Father Jim is, in fact, white or “just passing.”
Near the conclusion of the mass, as Logan led the choir in Anthony Brown’s soulful, R&B-influenced, gospel call-and-response hymn, “You Thought I Was Worth Saving,” I reflected to myself, as I took in the congregation swaying, arms in the air, and fists clenched in imploring gestures of praise and prayer, “I think St. Mary’s is worth saving.”
The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception is located at 232 Chapel St., Norfolk. Vigils are held Saturdays at 5 p.m., and Mass is held Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon. Learn more by calling 757-351-6332 or visiting BasilicaOfSaintMary.org.