Hidden History: The Holy Rosary, one of oldest black catholic churches in RVA

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Church has always been a staple in the African American community. Richmond has one of the oldest existing black Catholic churches in the country, the Holy Rosary.

Whether it was during slavery or the civil rights movement, historically the black church has been a safe haven for African Americans.

In the heart of Church Hill, the roots of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church go back to the 1930’s, when the redemptorist fathers started the Church Hill Catholic mission on 27th street.

Frank Nelson, Deacon of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, said the church was started as a mission for African Americans in the Church Hill area.

The mission was born out of the now closed St. Augustine’s, which was an integrated parish in the Fulton area.

Ben Miles has belonged to the church all his life and remembers it’s humble beginnings.

“Holy Rosary came into being I believe in 1953 and it started in a house at 27th and P streets, which was owned by a man named Mr. George Pollard, who let the church use the facility,” Miles said.

Father Raymond Schantz, a redemptorist priest, helped to move the church to 33rd and R Street. He’s pictured next to to then alter-boy, Monsignor Walter Barrett, the parish’s first black pastor.

Miles said they say the Holy Rosary is the longest existing black Catholic church, because it wasn’t the original black Catholic church in the city of Richmond.

The first was St. Joseph’s in Jackson Ward, it closed in 1969 as part of an effort by church leaders to integrate the parishes.

Miles said they wanted to force blacks to go to the Cathedral which was not far from St. Joseph’s.

In time, the parish and church at Holy Rosary has grown. The current sanctuary, chapel and office were dedicated in 2004 and are lead by Father David Stanfill.

Though Catholic at it’s core means ‘universal,’ what sets the parish apart is that it embraces culture.

“When you talk about African American churches, a lot of times people will notice that the music is different. So you’ll have gospel music and that music really reflects the spirit of the people,” Nelson said.

There are icons of the black Madonna and child and black Jesus Christ on the cross in the church.

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