Here’s one Norfolk spot you do not want to miss. It’s one of the community’s oldest – and most beautiful – landmarks: the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception.
Not only is the Basilica of Saint Mary is the only predominantly African American basilica in the world, St. Mary’s is one of only two basilicas in Virginia — significant Catholic churches specially designated by the pope himself.
The parish began in 1791(!). It is believed that the first building was burned by the “know-nothings” who were against the church’s multiracial masses. The current building was built in 1858 after the previous one burned. It took two years to rebuild the church then, on the eve of the Civil War.
In 2020, the Basilica completed a $6.7 million restoration (initially budgeted at $120,000) that has brought its beauty back to life. Much of the church’s roof and upper structure has effectively been rebuilt, while the interior was almost completely gutted and revamped.
During the renovations, a tunnel was discovered. It was deeper than any others and it was intersected by another tunnel, which was unusual. Historians now speculate that 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.”
Researcher Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander said she has seen an older map, and on it, part of the area appeared to be listed as a free black cemetery. Indicating that the structure may be part of old burial crypts.
Today the gorgeous building is a hidden gem in our city. The white spire hopefully shines over the St. Paul’s neighborhood, the building nestled along the 264 off-ramp.
The incredible stained glass, spectacular gold detailing, crisp white and blue paint, intricate plaster and wood molding, and the fantastic parish members make this one of Norfolk’s most notable landmarks.