Spotlight Archive

Four hundred years ago this month, English adventurers settled the colony of Jamestown, the first permanent colony in what is now the state of Virginia. The history of Catholicism in Virginia predates Jamestown.

The first Catholic presence in Virignia was the 1526 expedition of Spanish settlers led by Lucas Vasques de Ayllón and accompanied by Dominican friars including Antonio de Montesinos. The enterprise was quickly abandoned and the settlers returned to their point of origin, Santo Domingo.

More than forty years later, Father Juan Segura, with seven other Jesuit missionaries, set out to evangelize the Algonquin Indians in coastal Virginia. They were all killed by the Algonquin in 1571, not far from the future site of Jamestown.

Segura and his companions left little noticeable mark on the land where they spilled their blood. The British colonists claimed the territory of the four rivers (James, York, Potomac, and Rappahannock) for the King of England, and with the Crown’s sovereignty came the Crown’s religion, Anglicanism. Given its proximity to Maryland and its relative tolerance in the early colonial period, Virginia provided haven for Catholics fleeing the former colony when Protestants took control and enacted anti-Catholic measures. The first known permanent Catholic family—Giles Brent and his sisters Margaret and Mary—moved there in 1650 and 1651, respectively, after a bitter contest with Maryland and English authorities over the property rights of their family estate in Maryland. They settled in the Northern Neck and recruited migrants from England to fill their vast property holdings.

Patrick Henry, House of BurgessesAfter the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Virginia, too, became hostile to Catholic residents, and the community remained small and private. Priestly activity was prohibited and the Anglican establishment enforced. In the eighteenth century, Catholics in Virginia depended on the ministrations of a few itinerant priests (including John Carroll) traveling from Maryland.

As it did throughout the new nation, the Revolution brought changes in Virginians’ attitudes toward Catholics. It was a Virginia militia under Colonel George Rogers Clark that encountered friendly support from Father Pierre Gibault and the Catholic residents of Indiana. Such positive interaction and the ideas of the Founding encouraged the new state of Viriginia to guarantee religious freedom. Catholic churches were established in the capital of Richmond and in Alexandria, where Fr. John Thayer served. The first permanent Catholic parish in Virginia was founded in the latter city—St. Mary’s, “Mother of the Catholic Churces in the Old Dominion.” The former city, meanwhile, became the seat of the first diocese in the state, splitting the territory from the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 1820.

Recognizing that there was a larger and more established Catholic congregation in Norfolk, Richmond’s first bishop, Patrick Kelly, chose to reside there. Norfolk's parish was the site of one episode in the era’s Trustee Controversy, as the parishioners fought with their pastor, Father James Bushe. The dispute reflected in part ethnic tensions between the two Catholic immigrant groups in the city, Irish and French.

Known locally as the “Mother Church of Tidewater Virginia,” the Basilica of St. Mary in Norfolk is the oldest Catholic parish in the Diocese of Richmond. Once the site of confrontations between Know-Nothings and pastor Matthew O’Keefe over the issue of separate Masses for black and white parishioners (that the church had segregated seating was not enough for the Know-Nothings), the parish is now almost wholly African-American. It was designated a basilica in 1991. Josephite priests began their ministry to African-Americans in Viriginia in 1915; important contributions to the effort were also made by other congregations, such as Redemptorists.

Catholicism remained sparsely distributed through the antebellum period. A notable convert was Letitia Floyd Lewis, daughter of the governor, whose conversion, with that of two sisters, was widely remarked.

Richmond, ca. 1865In 1841, the second bishop of Richmond, Richard Whelan founded near that city a short-lived college and seminary, St. Vincent’s. In 1850, Whelan moved to fill the position created by the erection of a new diocese in the panhandle in the northwest of the state, Wheeling. Thirteen years later, the rupture that sundered the nation cut through the state of Virginia, throwing into confusion the ecclesial territories of Wheeling and Richmond. For more than a hundred years after, the dioceses of Wheeling and Richmond both included counties in the states of both Virginia and West Virginia.

Catholics in Virginia joined the ranks of the Confederate Army. Father Abram Ryan was a Confederate chaplain whose patriotic poetry became famous across the South. In Richmond, the Daughters of Charity played a prominent part in staffing the military hospital. The ample need for charity work during the war years and afterward led to the establishment of a St. Vincent de Paul Society in Richmond in 1865; Catholic Charities would come to the same city in 1922.

The fourth and fifth bishops of Richmond became well known national figures. Bishop James Gibbons presided from 1872 to 1877, after which time he went to Baltimore, where he would become archbishop, cardinal, and the preeminent prelate of the American Church. Bishop John Keane (1878–1888) moved on to become the first rector of Catholic University of America. A priest of the Richmond Diocese, Denis O’Connell, meanwhile had become rector of the North American College in Rome. The three prelates were all major figures in the Americanist Controversy and the ensuing shakeup knocked Keane out of his post at Catholic University and O’Connell out of his at the NAC. Keane became bishop of Dubuque, Iowa, while O’Connell was made an auxiliary bishop in San Francisco. O’Connell succeeded Keane as rector of Catholic University a few years later (1903), but lasted only six years there. His final appointment came in 1912—the seventh bishop of his home diocese of Richmond.

On June 4, 1903, Bishop Augustine Van De Vyver laid the cornerstone of one of the most magnificent ecclesial structures in the United States to that time, Sacred Heart Cathedral. Its splendor was made possible in large part by the support of a Catholic son of Richmond, New York financier Thomas Fortune Ryan.

The Knights of Columbus published the first Catholic periodical in the state, Virginian Knight (1924). In 1928, the Diocese of Richmond assumed control of the publication and it became the diocese’s official newspaper, renamed The Catholic Virginian. Bishop Russell attempted again to open a seminary for Richmond in 1960. St. John Vianney Seminary endured until 1978, when its financial burden on the diocese became too heavy. One year before that, one of the state’s two Catholic colleges was founded: Christendom College opened its doors in Front Royal.

Northern Virginia HighwayRapid population growth in the suburbs of Washington, DC, followed World War II. From 1946 to 1957, eleven parishes were founded or granted resident pastors in the towns of Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax; there had been eight in 1945. In 1950, Sacred Heart sisters established a girls' college in Arlington, which would become Marymount University. Continued growth eventually provoked the creation of a new diocese in the northern part of the state. The see of Arlington was erected in 1974 with Thomas Walsh as its first bishop. In the same year, the territories of Wheeling and Richmond were realigned to coincide with the boundaries of their respective states, ending the irregular arrangement caused by the Civil War.

Long a bridge between the heavily Catholic states of Pennsylvania and Maryland and the predominantly Protestant culture of the South, Virginia has participated in the expansion of Catholicism into the South. In 1789, Bishop Carroll estimated that there were 200 Catholics in Virginia; in 1999, there were 336,000 in the Diocese of Arlington alone. Such expansion builds on the foundation laid by some of the most significant lay and religious Catholic men and women in American history—and by all those who populate the story of “Commonwealth Catholicism.”

©2007 Posted May 23, 2007.
Photos, from top: Patrick Henry in House of Burgesses; Ruins in Richmond, ca. 1865; Shirley Highway, Northern Virginia, 1973. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (unrestricted).

Sources and Further Reading

J. Henretta, "Margaret Brent: A Woman of Property"

"Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception," Wikipedia

"Diocese of Richmond," Catholic Encyclopedia

"History of the Arlington Diocese," Diocese of Arlington, VA

M. M. Anger, "Spanish Martyrs for Virginia," Seattle Catholic

G. Fogarty, Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia