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Norfolk's 'Black basilica' celebrating 30th elevation anniversary this week

One of the nation's oldest Black parishes is celebrating its longstanding recognition as a historic church and national landmark—as well as its patronal feast.

(Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception)

The “Black basilica” in Norfolk, Va. is celebrating the 30th anniversary of its elevation this week, hosting events leading up to special anniversary Masses on Saturday and Sunday.

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception is widely recognized as the only predominantly Black basilica in the United States.

Its commemoration follows the re-dedication of the church in September, recognizing the extensive $7M restoration process begun in 2016 and completed just under a year ago amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As such, this week's events—beginning today with a Patronal Mass at 7pm ET—will be the first celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the newly restored edifice.

Over 160 years old, the current building was constructed in 1858 and restored once before in the 1980s, after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

It was elevated to basilica status by Pope John Paul II on December 8th, 1991, the bicentennial of its parochial founding as St Patrick Church in 1791—the date which garners the church’s moniker of “Mother Church of Catholicism in Hampton Roads”.

For their work during the more recent church restoration—including the discovery of possible Underground Railroad tunnels beneath the church—the parish received yet another honor, being named the 2020 recipient of the Michael Hoffman Award from the Council of Virginia Archaeologists.

This November (Black Catholic History Month) also celebrated the parish’s history, with local journalist and St Mary’s member Kara Dixon spearheading a visual media project highlighting parishioners’ experiences at the parish.

The updates were shared on Facebook throughout the month.

(St Mary's/Kara Dixon)

Following today's Mass, the parish will hold a service event tomorrow at 2pm, and donations of toiletries and winter clothing accessories are being accepted until the time of the event.

Saturday will feature a prayer brunch at 10am in the parish hall with keynote speaker Deacon Charles Williams, director for the Richmond Diocese's Office of Black Catholics. Tickets for that event are $10.

The two anniversary Masses on Sunday will be at 9am and 12 noon. Livestreams are available on the parish Facebook page.

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

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