Sunday, October 04, 2009

holy spirituals

The bellman said that the Catholic church nearest to our downtown Norfolk hotel was the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception. He wanted to make sure I knew that it was a Black Catholic church and that the liturgy would have a Baptist feel to it. I've joked that my home parish in Knoxville, All Saints, is very Baptist-friendly because of all the converts in our congregation. Besides, how Baptist could it be if the church is named after the Virgin Mary? As it turned out, the experience of worshiping at St. Mary's was rather different from All Saints.

Besides the obvious reversal of the race ratio, I noticed that the last seven pews at St. Mary's were elevated on risers. My daughter noted the absence of a center aisle and my wife pointed out that there were no kneelers in the pews. The cover of the hymnals was designed with an African feel to it. "Lead Me, Guide Me" is from GIA Publications and had several informative essays about Black Catholic worship.

One of the terms I picked up from the hymnal was "dialogical preaching." During the homily by Deacon Calvin Bailey there were some exclamations of "amen" and the like. The congregation applauded after the sermon, as they did after most of the hymns. The choir swooped and swayed in their robes while they sang "I've Decided to Follow Jesus," "Amazing Grace" and "Let Us Break Bread Together" among others. My wife, who knew that last hymn, found it ironic that they sang "let us break bread together on our knees" in a church with no kneelers.

The congregation remained standing during the parts of the Mass when most American Catholics are kneeling. The sign of peace differed somewhat too as altar servers and congregants left their places to walk around the church and embrace their friends and loved ones. The readings and prayers were right out of the Roman Missal. No liberties were taken, which I've heard may happen at some other parishes in the Diocese of Richmond.

After Mass, a parishioner who introduced herself as Carol Swank approached us. Being white and all it was fairly apparent that we were visitors. She told us a little about the history of the building and took us to three areas of interest. From the choir loft we got a good view of the whole sanctuary and saw the area where African Americans had to sit in the 19th century. The old pre-Vatican 2 altar was turned 180° and moved forward, creating a space for a Blessed Sacrament chapel. Two pieces of the old marble altar rail were saved from the trash pile and placed there also.

The most interesting thing Carol showed us was something the hotel bellman had also suggested I see. The first church that stood on the adjacent plot of land was torched in 1856 possibly as a hate crime against Black Catholics. Only one thing was pulled from the flames of the burning building: a huge, hand-carved wooden crucifix. Next to it is a framed news article from the Virginian-Pilot telling the story of the crucifix.

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Blogger Meaghan said...

Even the photo of the Crucafix gives me goosebumps.


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