National News

Two U.S. Catholic Churches Receive Grant Money to Help Preserve Their History

St. Rita Catholic Church in Indianapolis is seen March 5, 2022. The church is one of 16 Christian churches to receive a grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

WASHINGTON — Two Catholic Churches are among 35 black religious sites around the country receiving grant money to help with renovations and building preservation.

St. Rita Catholic Church in Indianapolis and the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk, Virginia, are both receiving grants from the “Preserving Black Churches” program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Black churches in nearly every region of the U.S. are part of the fund’s first round of recipients receiving grants ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 of the $4 million that will be distributed over the next two years. The fund is backed by the Lilly Endowment, which supports religious, educational, and charitable causes.

St. Rita’s, founded in 1919 as the first designated Black Catholic parish in Indiana, will receive $100,000 to fix its bell tower and repair the main structure’s brickwork from the 1950s. 

The Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, built in the mid-1800s and described as one of the few basilicas in the U.S. with a predominantly black congregation, is receiving $150,000 to support hiring preservation staff members to develop and implement a preservation plan for the church.

In a press release announcing this year’s grant recipients, Brent Leggs, the fund’s executive director and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said, “Historic black churches hold an endearing legacy of community, spirituality, and freedom that continues to span generations.”

He also said that the fund not only recognizes and celebrates black churches for their contribution to American life, culture, and history, but it also seeks to invest in their “physical permanence and financial sustainment into the future.”

Another grant-winning site is the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where civil rights organizing meetings were held in the 1960s, and four black girls were killed after a bombing by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963.

Locally, Varick Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Brooklyn is also a grant recipient. The church, which is more than 200 years old and has been in disrepair for three years, will use its $200,000 grant to restore its main building, which dates back to the 1950s, making it once again accessible to the congregation and helping the church revive its community programs.

Work at restoring this church, like many others across the country, stopped during the pandemic and then never resumed.

Rev. Monica Marshall, pastor of the congregation with about 75 active members, told The Associated Press that the pandemic “made it harder to maintain the building.”

“If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it’s hard to press on and go to even greater heights, to deeper depths in your life and in your legacy,” she said, emphasizing the need to restore churches like this.

St. Rita Catholic Church in Indianapolis also started repair work years ago, but the project stopped during the pandemic.

About 20 years ago, the bricks of its bell tower began falling, the pastor, Father Jean Bosco Ntawugashira, told AP, noting that it had become a danger to the community.

He said the restoration work will reflect a renewed understanding that the Catholic Church is universal and “doesn’t close doors to anyone.”

“We’re a hidden gem,” said Caleb Legg, a historian, architecture expert and member of St. Rita.

One hundred years ago, “Indiana was at the height of the segregation movement,” Legg told The Criterion, Indianapolis’ archdiocesan newspaper. “The (Ku Klux) Klan was extremely powerful. Given that we were both black and Catholic, we had a double target on our backs.”

The creation of the parish by then-Bishop Joseph Chartrand in 1919 was “a tremendous show of church support and sympathy to the needs of black Catholics,” said Legg.

In Virginia, Father Jim Curran, rector of the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, was similarly pleased the basilica is receiving grant funds, saying the money will help preserve the church’s sacred history by allowing it to hire staff members to be in charge of preservation.

“When you think about a church, it’s where the most significant events of a person’s life happen,” from baptisms to marriages and funerals. “All of the significant moments of life occur in a church,” he told WVEC-TV, the ABC affiliate in Norfolk. 

The priest said the basilica’s original church was built in 1842, was burned down in 1856, and rebuilt two years later. In 1991, it was named a minor basilica.

“Your black cultural heritage enriches the Church and makes her witness of universality more complete. In a real way, the Church needs you, just as you need the Church, for you are a part of the Church, and the Church is part of you,” St. John Paul II said when the church was elevated to a basilica.

The basilica’s current website includes an announcement about the grant funding it receives and said the organization distributing the funding “works to uplift the legacy of often-overlooked black churches, ensuring their capacities to serve the spiritual and social needs of their communities for years to come.”