Hidden History: Norfolk church helps historian uncover mystery

St. Joseph’s was Norfolk’s only Black Catholic church and school from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Members of a Norfolk congregation, hoping to honor a former church’s history, helped a local historian uncover a mystery.

Melvina Herbert and Angela Tolentino Christian attend the Basilica of St. Mary’s of the Immaculate Conception.

The two are a part of the church’s women’s ministry, which started the St. Joseph’s Project Fund.

Herbert says she started researching for the project when she moved back to the area.

The ministry says St. Joseph’s was Norfolk’s only Black Catholic church and school from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century.

Herbert and Tolentino Christian say the parish provided many activities and resources families couldn’t get anywhere else during the segregation era.

“Among ourselves as Black Catholics, there weren’t a lot of places we could go and that’s what St. Joseph’s provided for us,” Tolentino Christian said.

According to the church, St. Joseph’s parish was started in 1889 when clergy from the Josephite Society came to the area and opened the school.

Herbert says the congregation grew and a priest bought a Methodist church for sale off Cumberland and Freemason Street.

Herbert says there was also a convent, rectory, and school, which was located off Brambleton.

“Where Scope is now was where our school was,” she said.

Herbert says the parish, which had 1st-12th grade classes and eventually dropped down to 8th grade in the 1950s, closed its doors in 1961.

She says she was surprised to not see any type of historical marker.

That’s why the women’s ministry is hosting a gala for the project fund in April.They’re working to get a marker installed at the sites.

They’re hoping to reunite with those whose families attended the school.

They’re also hoping to share memories and stories, including a new one that was discovered during their research.

“I found out there had been a Black Catholic cemetery. I didn’t know where it was or anything about it,” she said.

That’s where Herbert crossed paths with local historian, Charles E. Johnson Jr.

Johnson focuses on African-American cemetery history.

He says he started researching about an empty plot of land off Goff Street back in 2015 because he wondered why nothing was built on the site.

Through his tedious research, including finding maps of the city from the 1800s and contacting religious organizations, he discovered it was a Black Catholic cemetery, and he immediately thought it belonged to the Basilica of St. Mary’s.

But Johnson says that church’s cemetery was located further down the road and he was able to identify it through the maps and research he collected.

“This is not a St. Mary’s cemetery. This is a Catholic cemetery for the people of St. Joseph’s,” he said.

Johnson says a church is now on the land that designates the site where the cemetery was located.

He even has a list of the people, the dates of their deaths, and the causes for those buried, but he’s not sure where they are.

“People question if the cemetery was there when the church was built. If the people buried there were reburied, that’s the ongoing search for me as a historian,” Johnson said.

Johnson says finding out who the cemetery belonged to makes all his work worth it.

“I’ve done a number of cemeteries and it’s always that wall, that loose end. Who did this? Who did that? Now, I can identify that with a group, a group that is concerned, who is organized, who is focused on their history, I could share with them,” he said.

Johnson says it’s important to share this to make sure those who may be gone won’t be forgotten.

It’s that history all are trying to preserve by honoring the legacy of St. Joseph’s.