NORFOLK, Va. – The historic Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception is unveiling its recent $6.7 million makeover.
The church, built in 1858, has been under renovations for about four and a half years. In addition to structural repairs, the building now has new floors and pews. The paint is a crisp white, gold and blue.
Parishioners have been worshipping in the hall attached to the main building. On December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, parishioners were welcomed back into the basilica to see the renovations. Father Jim Curran described that mass and music played from the original organ.
“People were weeping when they heard it. It was just so beautiful,” said Curran.
Father Curran explained that they decided to keep the original pews in the balcony because it was an important part of their past.
“Those indents were started by the knees of the slaves and the Black parishioners that were pushed up there, and we don’t want to cover that up,” stated Curran. “We want to honor that.”
Will McCadden is the project manager and a parishioner. He proudly showed off the features of the basilica and said he wishes his parents could see it in all its glory.
“I lost both parents while recreating, redoing the church, so that’s my only regret - that they did not get a chance to see it,” McCadden shared. “But they’re still watching.”
The Basilica of Saint Mary is the only predominantly African American basilica in the United States. During the renovations, a tunnel was discovered. One historian believes it could have been used to convey water; however, the historian said it was deeper than any others and it was intersected by another tunnel, which was unusual. Parishioners wonder if it could have been used as part of the Underground Railroad, bringing slaves to nearby ships.
“The truth is we’ll never know for certain,” said Father Curran. “But it’s a reminder to us of the human spirit. We were not made to be slaves. We were made for freedom. We were made to fight against oppression, and we’ll never stop.”
Father Curran said the COVID-19 pandemic has limited seating to about 80 and that for Christmas midnight mass, seats have already been reserved. The basilica plans to stream the service online through their Facebook page.