Skip to content

After years-long wait, America's Black basilica finally reopens

In a kind of Christmas miracle, the nation's Black basilica reopens its doors in time for the close of Advent—history in tow.

The Black basilica is back.

Nearly 5 years after renovations began, 3 and a half years after moving Masses into their church hall, and 6 months since it was profiled in the National Catholic Reporter, Norfolk's Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception is finally back to its old self.

The nearly $7-million dollar restoration has brought parishioners of the nation's only predominantly-Black basilica home in time for Christmas.

The parish community stretches back almost 230 years, and—like many Black Catholic parishes—became predominantly African-American only after the Great Migrations, when St Joseph's (a Black parish staffed by the Josephites) was merged with Immaculate Conception in 1961.

The current building was erected in 1858 under the patronage of the Church's newest Marian dogma at the time—then only 4 years old—and was declared a minor basilica in 1991.

(The originally building was burned down in 1856, allegedly by White Supremacists.)

Its elevation to basilica status was not unlike Cardinal Wilton Gregory's recent elevation to the cardinalate, with Pope St. John Paul II using the occasion to subtly champion Black Catholicism. He repeated his own words from a meeting just 4 years prior, with Black Catholics in New Orleans:

"Your Black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete. In a real way the Church needs you, just as you need the Church, for you are a part of the Church and the church is part of you."

Half a decade ago came discovery of extensive rot in the walls and roof of the church, leading to an unexpected journey that included the restoration of a historic organ and the discovery of possible Underground Railroad tunnels beneath the (now-replaced) church floors.

With the journey complete, parishioners were welcomed back into their sanctuary for a viewing on—when else—December 8th, the feast of their patron saint.

There they encountered a new altar, complete with an emblem of "Gye Nyame"—the most recognizable Afrocentric symbol for God within the Black community and Black Catholicism.

Also inside were the original 19th-century balcony pews where enslaved Black Catholics were once made to sit, in the time of American apartheid.

Now, almost exactly a month after the elevation of the first US Black cardinal, the sanctuary of the nation's first Black basilica is once again open for Mass.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder of Black Catholic Messenger, a priesthood applicant with the Josephites, and a ThM student w/ the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

#GivingTuesday and beyond: