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DNA testing of remains found under Norfolk basilica could shed light on church's history

A sanctuary features high, gothic arches and gold accents
The sanctuary of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk was renovated during the past several years. (Photo: Laura Philion/WHRO)

It all started with a leaky roof and a renovation. Now, more than seven years later, the skeletons exhumed from the sanctuary floor at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk will be genetically tested. The findings might shed more light on the storied church’s history of integration.

Father Jim Curran was trying to preserve the historic basilica building when renovations started seven years ago. Then, in 2019, repairs took a turn.

“While we were breaking up the floor, the jackhammers just went straight through, and [we] discovered a tunnel,” Curran said.

In excavating more flooring, contractors found graves. It turns out the Basilica of St. Mary was built on its own graveyard.

“There were all kinds of crypts that we discovered,” Curran said. “Some were clearly for wealthier people, some for families. There was one — a mother buried with her child, and you could see that. It was very touching and very moving.”

Testing remains

Anthropologist Dana Kollman analyzed the exhumed remains. She dated the bones to the 19th century and made some surprising preliminary findings.

“Three individuals showed attributes that we often associate with people of African ancestry, but that will have to be determined genetically,” she said.

The first Black Catholic basilica in the country, the church has more than 200 years of history to its name. A basilica is a designated place of pilgrimage, honored by the Roman Catholic Church for its significance.

Researchers from the universities of Pennsylvania and Connecticut will complete DNA testing this year to learn more about the exhumed remains.

Theodore Schurr, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, specializes in genetics and will lead the extraction of DNA from the bones.

He said teeth and bones from the inner ear stand the best chance of still holding some genetic material.

The timeline for DNA analysis isn’t the familiar, speedy process shown on TV. Schurr said it takes a few weeks to extract the DNA from the bones, several more to separate the DNA from other substances like proteins. Only then does the analysis begin.

A complex legacy

St. Mary’s is the only basilica in the Diocese of Richmond with a majority Black congregation. When the nearby St. Joseph’s Church — opened during Reconstruction to serve Black Catholics — closed in the early 1960s, the two parishes combined. But it’s long been said Black and white parishioners worshiped together at St. Mary’s since the 1840s.

An integrated graveyard would corroborate the popular history of the basilica.

"Your Black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete,” Pope John Paul II told worshipers in 1991, the same year he recognized the church as a minor basilica. “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.”

The corner of Chapel and Holt streets has been home to a Catholic church since the end of the 18th century — almost 30 years before the establishment of the Diocese of Richmond — when the building was known as St. Patrick’s. In that time, it’s seen a lot of Norfolk history.

According to research by Commonwealth Preservation Group, roughly one-third of the congregation died during the 1853 Yellow Fever epidemic. In 1856, the church was destroyed by a likely arson.

At the time, residents blamed the nativist Know-Nothing party, which objected to Catholics in general and St. Patrick’s specifically — for allowing Black congregants to worship in the choir loft during services.

Racial feelings in antebellum Norfolk weren’t so cut and dried.

Father Matthew O’Keefe, parish priest during the yellow fever outbreak, ministered to the sick and helped bury the dead, earning an outstanding reputation for his work. He began the practice of somewhat integrating church services. But he also supported the Confederacy and served as a military chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.

“There’s certainly some really, really fascinating details that talk about how worthy of understanding this period in American history is and in Norfolk,” said Brown, the archaeologist. “When I talk to folks about this, they usually become a little bit in awe of how many different things they learned about are all intersecting in the same place.”

After the DNA testing is complete, the six sets of remains will make their final journey to St. Mary’s Cemetery on Granby Street.

There, they will join other congregants laid to rest by the parish.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.