NEWS UPDATE: SCARY!! See what was found under church floor

NORFOLK, Virginia — No one knows how many skeletons are under St. Mary’s in Norfolk, or why the 162-year-old Catholic church was built right on top of a cemetery.

But when David Givens, Jamestown’s head archaeologist, recently rolled a ground penetrating radar over the sanctuary’s concrete floor, he detected void after void.

Graves, he said, “are everywhere under here.”

Church legend has long whispered of such things.

Confirmation came last fall when contractors removed part of the floor to install sewer lines for new bathrooms and found the faint borders of a brick crypt.

Then a skull — or at least part of one — turned up in a utility hole cut near the altar.

Renovations screeched to a halt.

Now, the congregation of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception just wants to know who’s under there.

The church, one of the oldest among its faith in the commonwealth, has always been unusual — a vaulted, stained-glass, Gothic-inspired work of architecture listed on state and national historic registries.

It’s one of just two Catholic churches in the state designated by the pope as a “minor basilica” — a place of special pilgrimage — and the only one in the country with a predominately African American flock.

A holy place. Consecrated. Steeped in spirit and soul.

Above ground.

And apparently below.

What happened all those years ago at St. Mary’s would be highly illegal today. A felony.

Even more of a mindboggler: The dead under the floor are assumed to be the church’s very own — worshippers from earlier congregations, the kind of ancestors whose remains tend to get more respect.

Their stories start 20 years after the end of the American Revolution, when a small, wooden chapel was built around 1802 on the parcel, a few low-lying acres now brushed by the City Hall exit ramp of I-264.

The chapel — the first formal home for the Catholic faith in the area — served a largely immigrant community: Irish, French, Spanish, escaping tough times, oppression or revolutions in their own countries. Old maps point to a burial ground in a quadrant of the plot.

The chapel evolved into bigger and better buildings until its footprint was occupied by a substantial structure called St. Patrick’s. It was heavily damaged in a fire in 1856 — a suspected arson, punishment for holding interracial services.

By 1858, the parish had renamed itself St. Mary’s, transformed the ruins of St. Patrick’s into a parish hall and built a new house of worship — larger, grander than ever and on a different section of the land, the piece that held its own cemetery.

But while some historic churches, like Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish, do have members interred under their floors, such graves are preserved as places of honor and marked with chiseled slabs.

At St. Mary’s, headstones were removed and the final resting spots of relatives and friends erased — cleaved by foundation or drainage work, entombed and forgotten beneath a soaring sanctuary and gleaming spire.

Why was that considered OK?

Church records from the era are sparse or missing entirely, making “it hard to get inside their heads,” said Father Jim Curran, who leads the current congregation.

Certainly, life in general was harder and shorter back then. And in Norfolk and Portsmouth alone, the 1855 yellow fever epidemic had just claimed 3,000 souls.

“There were so many burials, so much death,” Curran said. “They were not as distant from it as we are. They lived with it every day.”

Maybe cemeteries weren’t viewed in such an untouchable light.

“I just don’t think death had the same ominous feel,” Curran said.

Now though, the discovery of St. Mary’s underworld was enough to hit the brakes on a $6.5 million, multiyear renovation.

The restoration and repair project, which mushroomed from a leaky roof, was already behind schedule and quite complicated, calling for experts in historical architecture to meet standards, accessing tax credits to help cover the cost.

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