Crypts, tunnel unearthed at Virginia church
NORFOLK — When parishioners at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception started their latest construction project in 2014, their main concerns were repairing ceiling leaks, restoring the windows and adding a new floor.
But after a recent discovery, new questions linger. Whose remains lie under the sanctuary floor? And is it possible that slaves ran to freedom through a tunnel found on the property?
In October, a construction worker found the tunnel — previously used as a water drain — while jack hammering the concrete. The worker broke through the top of the tunnel, and later three crypts were also found on the property.
“It had been broken at some point during a prior restoration,” said David Brown, an adjunct history professor at the College of William & Mary and founder of the Fairfield Foundation, a Gloucester-based research organization. “No one had passed along any information that it was there, so it was quite a surprise to everyone.”
To research the tunnel and crypts, the church is also working with Cassandra Newby-Alexander, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and professor of history at Norfolk State University.
She thinks it’s possible that the tunnel was used to transport people closer to the waterfront.
“The Underground Railroad didn’t build new things, it used old things to its advantage,” she said.
She said that Norfolk was called the Southern Depot due to the high concentration of people leaving from here and finding sanctuary in northern areas. Much of it had to do with Norfolk’s location on the water and the volume of ships coming and going at the time.
The enslaved population in the area was an informed one, according to Newby-Alexander.
“In the 1840s, the City Council passed an ordinance to stop the delivery of abolitionist newspapers to the enslaved population,” she said.
Brown agreed that measuring about three by four feet, the tunnel would have been large enough for the task. It won’t be easy to prove, though, he said.
“Finding evidence of somebody escaping through the tunnel that isn’t in a document is going to be really tough, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that it is large enough to facilitate that,” he said.
The church that once called the property home — St. Patrick’s — burned down in 1856, said Rev. Jim Curran, pastor at St. Mary’s. They welcomed black and white Catholics during mass, and some people didn’t like it. St. Mary’s was then built over the next two years.
The church was built on top of a burial ground, Brown said. The tunnel and crypts were put in before 1857, when church construction began.
“Some of those human remains are likely within the construction fill, maybe in a just kind of general brick and rubble debris that is spread underneath the church,” he said.
He has to be present when they’re digging in certain areas, and they’re working with the Department of Historic Resources to make sure they’re doing things legally and respectfully, Brown said. That means making sure their findings are secure and properly labeled and that someone who’s qualified to identify human remains is on site.
Curran said the Department of Historic Resources gave them permission to continue their work on Wednesday.
If remains are still there, they may be able to run DNA tests, he said.
Newby-Alexander is excited about what this discovery means for Norfolk. Many artifacts in the past, such as those found during the building of MacArthur Center, were destroyed because there weren’t any processes in place to dig and excavate, she said.
“I think Norfolk has missed out on not utilizing its history for tourism. We have a huge interest in the Underground Railroad,” she said.
As far as the crypts, she is hoping they’ll be able to dig in and find remains so they can find out who was buried there.
Newby-Alexander has seen an older map, and on it, part of the area appeared to be listed as a free black cemetery.
What she wants to do now is figure out what was near that site before the previous church, St. Patrick’s, was built.
“One of the curious things that we’re hoping to confirm is who may have been buried there because the map seems to suggest a correlation to the Catholic church, but history is never as straightforward as we think it is,” Brown said.
Newby-Alexander also notes that the crypts were found in two different sections — ones that are positioned north to south, which was typical in a white Christian cemetery, and ones positioned east to west, which is often seen in African burials.
The church has been undergoing a makeover in the past five years, and moved out of the sanctuary in 2017. The project started at $800,000, jumped to $1.5 million and is now at $6.5 million, Curran said.
The money to cover construction, and now research, comes from parishioners and fundraisers, said Oretha Pretlow, the church’s pastoral associate.
This discovery will delay the process of moving back into the sanctuary, but Curran doesn’t mind.
“Right now we’re looking at somewhere around late summer or early autumn,” he said. “It’s just very careful and methodical work. We definitely want to make sure we can do it right. And anything that we can find out and add to the body of information that we have of Norfolk is well worth the wait.”
On Wednesday, an engineer looked at the tunnel and suggested they fill it in. Curran said they don’t want to, though.
“We’re looking at ways to maintain this, and maybe even put a glass floor down so that you can see it,” he said. “We were very excited about the find and what it could mean.”