Catholics in the Portsmouth and Norfolk area during Colonial times were largely English and Irish immigrants. Although Virginia passed a Bill of Rights in 1776 which included freedom of religion, its full implementation was hampered by the Revolutionary War (which lasted through 1782) and how it was to be read was controversial into the 1800’s. Until 1795, Catholics in this area continued to practice the faith in privacy. An influx of French refugees both from France and San Domingue expanded the Catholic population here considerably. At that point Bishop John Carroll established St. Patrick’s parish in Norfolk (now St. Mary’s). (John Carroll, was the first Catholic Bishop of Baltimore and is known as the founder of the Catholic Church in America.)
Catholics in Portsmouth began celebrating Mass in May of 1804, and the parish of St. Paul’s was established. St. Paul’s is considered a daughter church of St. Mary’s in Norfolk (formerly called St. Patrick’s), and is in turn the mother church for St. Mary, Star of the Sea (Ft. Monroe in Hampton VA), St. Mary‘s of the Presentation (Suffolk), St. Mary’s (Bowers Hill, in Chesapeake), Church of the Holy Angels (Cradock in Portsmouth), St. Therese’ of the Little Flower (Western Branch in Chesapeake) and Church of the Resurrection (Churchland in Portsmouth).
To learn more about the fascinating history of the Catholic Church in our parishes, please contact:
St. Paul’s History Committee Co-Chairs: Mary Sue O’Brien at 757-483-3087.
History of Our Lady of Victory Catholic School
On February 17, 1930, a young Dutch priest purchased a frame building on Effingham and Clifford Streets in Portsmouth, Virginia, to start a Catholic parish for the Black community. Rev. Nicholas J. Habets’ offer of his services to work among the community and Rt. Rev. Andrew J. Brennan’s acceptance of that offer were important steps in the foundation of Our Lady of Victory Parish and School. Also in February of that year, Father Habets purchased lots for $8,000 to begin construction of the parish school.
On September 30, 1930, the school opened with Sister Madeline as the Superior, Sister Agnes, and 144 smiling first and second graders to start what would continue to be a victorious growth for OLV. The first High Mass was sung on Sunday, October 7th, Feast of the Holy Rosary. Each year, an additional grade was added to the school, and in 1935 a second story was added to the school to accommodate the growing registration. The high school was accredited by the Virginia Education Department in 1940, and in 1943 the school was affiliated with the Catholic University of America. The amazing progress of the school in a short period of time made Father Habets seem almost magical. However, his dedication and love for his parishioners caused Father Habets to have the cooperation of all concerned.
The first graduating class in 1940 held 15 class members. As the school grew, so did the school staff. In the fall of 1931, Sister Raphael came to the school to stay more than 20 years. The succeeding years brought Sister Martha, Sister Clara, Sister Mary Elizabeth, Sister Elizabeth, Sister Margaret, Sister Gervase, Sister Brendan, Sister Delores (Anna Charles), and Sister William Marie, to name a few.
During the early years of Our Lady of Victory, there were few Catholics. In fact, Mass was sometimes served by non-Catholic altar boys, but during the coming years an enormous growth of baptized Catholics adorned the church. Each boy and girl that attended OLV was blessed with superior educational, spiritual, and moral training that was offered by the dedicated Sisters of Charity. These superior qualities certainly gave OLV the unique image of graduating quality students. The story was told over and over again in the achievements that were attained by many students. Herbert Harris, a member of the first graduating class, was the highest rated of all freshmen entering Virginia State College in Petersburg. Several students won local writing, reading, and oratorical awards through contests that were sponsored by private agencies in the city.
Besides a minimal charge of 10 cents per week per student until 1940, much of the financial support for the school came from the lovely annual pageants that were staged by all grade members. The first school show was witnessed by 800 people and proved to be a financial as well as a theatrical success.
The first basketball team was formed with members of the class of 1940. In the beginning, the only opponent for the team was St. Paul’s Catholic School. The OLV basketball team grew to be a source of pride for the school. The mighty Trojans went on to rival the city public schools and set an impressive record that was second to none.
Father Albert F. Pereira came to the parish in 1950. He continued the growth of OLV by constructing the church auditorium. This space served as a lunch room, a gymnasium, an auditorium, and a separate partitioned portion was used for church. Father Pereira had a contagious grin that made the students comfortable and therefore willing to communicate with him. During Father Pereira’s time of service, the school had a lovely Glee Club that participated in choral competition with other regional schools.
Other community residents also contributed to the growth of the school. To name a few, Mrs. Carrie B. Russell, teacher at I.C. Norcom High School, assisted Father Habets in teaching Latin. Mr. Gilbert Keck was the basketball coach during the 1940’s. Mr. William T. Mercer was the Choir Director from 1951 to 1959. Mr. Alfonso W. Stukes coached the victorious Trojans in the 1950’s.
Father Thomas Summers served OLV from 1957 to 1959. Father Henry van den Boogard, another Dutch priest, served from 1960 until the school and church closed to integrate with other Catholic schools and churches in the city.
In 1960, OLV graduated its last high school class, and the elementary classes were gradually reduced. In 1964 when the school closed, the highest grade level was the 6th grade.
We will hold Victory forever in our hearts with profound respect and extreme love. We are grateful for yesterday, proud of today, and will uphold the legacy of Victory throughout all our tomorrows.