St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Basilica in Virginia has opened its doors again just in time for Christmas Eve Mass, after a four-year restoration project that began with a leaking roof, but led to much more, The Daily Press reported.
The basilica dates back to 1858, when the current church was built to replace one that burned down. The parish that has become St. Mary’s was originally founded in the late 18th century, decades before the Diocese of Richmond, and shortly after passage of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom. It is “the cornerstone of Catholicism” in Virginia’s Tidewater region.
St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception is the only Black Catholic parish church in the US that is also a basilica. The current parish community, located in the St. Paul neighborhood, merged after nearby St. Joseph’s closed down and merged with St. Mary’s, bringing St. Joseph’s mostly Black Catholic community with it.
The story of the basilica’s restoration began with a chunk of cement that fell from the ceiling and landed just feet away from a youth choir.
Subsequent inspection showed that termites had eaten through many of the wood beams holding up the roof – so much so that it was said it was almost a miracle that the roof stayed up.
Father Jim Curran, pastor at St. Mary’s since 2012, said the wings of angels must have held the roof in place.
Water damage, chipping paint, and window frames also eaten by termites, meant a major a restoration project would be needed to save the gothic revival basilica.
Will McCadden, parishioner and project manager said “Literally every day, something new would show up.”
The restoration included not only fixing the ceiling and frames of the stained glass windows eaten away by termites, but also the installation of air conditioning in the choir deck, and extra seating that increases the basilica’s capacity from around 380 to 520.
Fr. Curran said there is also a center aisle in the church now, which hasn’t been present in the church for 30 years.
A historical altar — a huge piece of stonework with a carving of Christ on the Cross — was turned away from the congregation decades ago to prevent distraction, Fr. Curran said. Now, it’s turned back around to face those assembled in worship, stated the Daily Press.
A celebration of the restored church will take place once pandemic restrictions have been lifted, so as many people as possible could take part in the historic event.
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