A Fort Monroe Treasure
St. Mary Star of the Sea, the ninth oldest parish in the Diocese of Richmond and the oldest Catholic parish on the Peninsula, holds a unique distinction: It is the only diocesan church in the nation located on a military installation, and its upkeep is funded solely by parishioner contributions.
Be sure to explore the additional tabs under the “History” tab for more information of the year by year history of Saint Mary Star of the Sea.
Three years after the settlement of Jamestown, a small group of civilians and soldiers moved to the fertile area near Strawberry Banks to avoid the disease and starvation rampant at Jamestown. Fort Algernon (now Fort Monroe) had already been fortified in 1609 to guard the narrow point of entrance to Hampton Roads. Thus, on July 9, 1610, after a battle on the site of the Indian village of Kicotan, the city of Hampton was founded. In 1619, “Kecoughtan” was named “Elizabeth City” in honor of the daughter of King James I, but the lovely Indian name remained in popular use for another century. The growing settlement was then renamed “Southampton” to honor the Earl who was a major stockholder in the Virginia Company. In time the name was shortened to “Hampton”. By charter, the only church allowed, and indeed required, was the Church of England. Thus Elizabeth City Parish Church was founded. This name was later changed to St. John’s Episcopal Church. According to a second charter of King James I, members of the Church of Rome were banned from the Virginia Colony.
During the American Revolution, sixty French priests ministered to the French troops in the Battle of Yorktown. After the war ended, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Act for Established Religious Freedom that Catholics, as well as other
religions, were free to worship in Virginia.
The Diocese of Richmond, formed from America’s first Diocese, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was erected by a decree issued by Pope Pius VII. It encompassed the entire state of Virginia, including what is now West Virginia.
Rev. Thomas Hore, described as a “zealous Irish priest” from County Wexford, Ireland, celebrated the first recorded Catholic Mass at Fortress Monroe, though we do not know the exact site or date. He had been called to serve the spiritual needs of military personnel and construction workers for the moat and fortress. Begun in 1819 the fort was still far from completed. By 1825 Fortress Monroe was said to have had the largest garrison of any establishment. It later declined, and priests came to serve it on a mission basis. The Rev. Walter Moriarity and the Rev. Francis Devlin of St. Paul’s Portsmouth, said mass every third Sunday at Fortress Monroe. Fr. Devlin served the sick and dying during the terrible yellow fever epidemic that swept Norfolk and Portsmouth in the early 1850s, his actions dispelling much prejudice towards Catholics. He succumbed to the plague in 1855.
Right Rev. John McGill, Third Bishop of Richmond, and Col. Rene E. De Russy, representing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, signed an agreement, dated June 6, 1860, that, with permission granted by President Abraham Lincoln,
authorized the construction of a Catholic church on Fort Monroe. The government would retain ownership of the land, but the Diocese would own the church and rectory buildings. Originally established for the Catholic military
personnel and workers on the fort, it was later re-designated for use by all Catholics in the nearby area. A simple one-story frame building was built, originally probably painted red or black, and after the Civil War painted white, surrounded by a white picket fence. It had to be small because the authorities would not allow a structure to be raised to a height that would interfere with the range of guns mounted on the ramparts. Fortunately its small size allowed it to survive through the Civil War, unlike the neighboring Hygeia Hotel that was demolished because it’s height and
size hindered the war effort. Bishop McGill dedicated the chapel on September 9, 1860. Rev. Joseph Plunkett was the first pastor, although he was headquartered in Portsmouth. He traveled by boat and had easy access to the church property that was at that time, directly on the waters of Phoebus Bay. It is said that sometimes the waves lapped
against the picket fence surrounding the church. When the war began this passage across Hampton Roads became impossible because of gunfire over the water. However, the Rev. Matthew O’Keefe, a native of County Waterford,
Ireland, and pastor of St. Mary’s in Norfolk, and his assistant, the Rev. Michael Ferrin, made the boat trip to Fort Monroe despite the cannon fire. Like Bishop McGill, they were ardent supporters of the Confederate cause.
From November 1862 the Redemptorist Fathers of Annapolis, Maryland were asked by the Archbishop of Baltimore to assume spiritual care of Fort Monroe until the end of the war. They took the overnight boat trip to Old Point Comfort from Maryland and stayed in the Sacristy quarters in the church. Rev. Francis Seelos was one of these Redemptorist priests who answered the call of duty to Fortress Monroe in December 1862 to give spiritual help to the soldiers. His short stay at the fort was characterized by long hours celebrating mass, hearing confessions, and administering communion. He also recalled how bitterly cold it was, “We didn’t have any snow, but there was a cutting wind, fresh from the north.” He found warmth in the appreciative attitude of the soldiers, and he encouraged them to be faithful in the service of God for the great grace they were given. All were moved to tears. Francis Seelos was beatified in 2000.
The first fulltime resident pastor at St. Mary’s was the Rev. John P. Hagan. He arrived in October 1873 and lived in a room off the sanctuary that was a combination office, study, and sleeping apartment. He tried to gain permission to
build a rectory, but was denied. He spent a great deal of time away on horseback serving the needs of various missions. He would return with saddlebags full of fruits, preserves, and homemade bread, and other welcome gifts of gratitude from those to whom he ministered. Fr. Hagan baptized Evelina Nealon, daughter of Jacobus and Catherina Nealon, on 11 October 1873. This was the first recorded baptism at St. Mary’s.
The first application to the Post Engineers to build a priest’s dwelling near the church was forwarded to Washington, but rejected by the Secretary of War. Approval for the rectory was finally obtained, after special permission was
granted from the Virginia General Assembly in July 1876. Construction began under the pastorate of Rev. Patrick J. Hasty and was completed under Rev. Thomas J. Murray. Father Murray also directed the building of a small school, but it was destroyed by a severe storm in 1881. A larger school was built and the growing Mill Creek area changed its name to the town of Phoebus. During Father Murray’s pastorate, the school and church grew and became a congregation of about 400 people. St. Mary’s provided spiritual aid to the Civil War veterans who sought refuge at a shelter provided for them in the National Soldiers Home, Hampton. Now called the Veterans Administration Center, St. Mary’s priests served it until 1955.
The first entry in the marriage log was made in 1877. Rev. Thomas J. Murray performed the wedding ceremony of Judson Jerome Rogers and Ann Louise Wall on 13 February 1877.
These years saw the Old Point area become a favorite resort area. The Chamberlin Hotel and Hygeia Hotel were highly praised for their beneficial aid to good health by bathing in the waters of Hampton Roads. The wealth and
substance of the visitors benefited St. Mary’s. By the end of Fr. Murray’s pastorate the church had seen many improvements. Stained glass windows replaced the plain glass windows, a heating apparatus was installed, new altar
furnishings were procured and parish work increased to the extent that two priests were required.
In 1889 the Rev. Charles Donahue became assistant pastor of St. Mary’s. He had a wonderful singing voice and loved fishing and boating. At dusk he would regularly get in his boat, sail out into the nearby waters, and serenade an audience of Old Point Comfort residents, who would rush to their porches and hotel verandas to listen.
Under the Rev. William A. Fallon’s leadership, funds were raised and construction was begun of a new stone church, using stones brought from Europe as ballast in ships. The new church was estimated to cost $15,000, and each
contributor to the building fund was acknowledged in the “Fair Journal”. The new church building was dedicated on June 9, 1903. The interior of the building has seen many changes over the years, but the exterior appearance remains the same, with the exception of its original cathedral-like spires that were removed in 1966 due to the problem of water leakage.
This picture was taken around 1912, showing Mr. Jim Boyhan’s Ford. He was a well-known character around the church; he used to train, pick up and return the altar boys, as well as the Sisters and others needing a ride. Note the closeness of the water to the church grounds at this time. The pastor was the Rev. Thomas J. Wilson, a priest from Mullahoran and Loughduff in County Cavan, Diocese of Ardagh and Clonmacnois, Ireland. He saw the need for a parochial school and began raising funds during his pastorate. At the time of his death Father Wilson had paid the church debt and established a large fund for a parochial school.
The Catholic school on Mill Creek was realized under Msgr. William A. Gill in 1923. The school building had been used as a hospital during the Civil War and later became a deluxe hostess house known as Brightview Manor and was used for officers’ wives and families visiting Fort Monroe. To serve the school Msgr. Gill secured the services of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, Nashville, Tennessee. These sisters still serve the school, now a regional school for four parishes. A famous walker and swimmer, Msgr. Gill took an early morning swim in the Bay every day – all year round.
On January 14, 1933 Rev. Richard B. Washington became the pastor at St. Mary’s. Born in Charles Town, West Virginia, he was a descendant of President George Washington and a convert to the Catholic faith. He was very patriotic and gave many lectures on the patriotism of Catholics in this country.
The Rev. Julius O. Schmidhauser made arrangements for the construction of a new St. Mary Star of the Sea School and convent additions. He also oversaw the building of the Buckroe Beach St. Joseph Chapel that became a mission of St. Mary’s. St. Mary Star of the Sea School was designated as the central parochial school for the parishes of the Lower Peninsula.
The Rev. Walter F. Sullivan was Associate Pastor at St. Mary’s from 1956- 1958. He later became the 11th Bishop of Richmond. He has expressed fond memories of his days here.
Sadly, in 1966 the beautiful spires on the two towers had to be removed. Over the years water had leaked in and caused major structural damage to the roof.
In 1968 the Buckroe chapel became St. Joseph Catholic Church under the direction of the Redemptorist Fathers. On July 26, 1971, St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s parishes merged, with the Rev. Raymond E. Schantz, C.Ss.R. as pastor.
On February 15, 1975 the Rev. Leonard Cordier, C.Ss.R. became pastor of St. Joseph-St. Mary’s Church. The parish hall at St. Joseph’s would later be named for him.
On July 1, 1977, St. Mary’s again became an independent parish with the Rev. Daigle as pastor. Two years later the Rev. Charles Brickner raised funds to refurbish the neglected church buildings and remodel the altar to conform to changes in the liturgy under Vatican II. The stained glass windows were renewed and sealed on the outside. The organ was moved so as to better view the large central stained glass window in the choir loft. Roof repairs were made, the interior plastered and painted, and the new blue carpet laid throughout the church. A new altar was installed, after the original altar against the wall was removed.
During Rev. Charles Brickner’s pastorate the parish celebrated its 125th anniversary on September 9, 1985. This culminated several years of reconstruction to the exterior and interior of the church.
A new 1300 square foot Parish Hall, attached to the original historic rectory, was completed under the leadership of Rev. Charles W. Brickner. Because the rectory is considered an historic building, the project needed approval from the National Register of Historic Places.
During the pastorate of Rev. Joseph L. Clark, our longest serving pastor, new light-colored wainscoting was added behind the altar and along the sides to replace the dark wood. The reconciliation room was refurbished and the new
entrance doors with stained glass panels were installed. He oversaw the installation of a new roof, windows, and central air and heating to the rectory. He built up a substantial reserve fund for future church renovations.
September 11, 2001 changed our lives forever. That first weekend we held mass in the school chapel, because no one was allowed entrance to the base unless they lived or worked there. Screening procedures were initiated and soon we were able to have mass as usual in the church.
Rev. Joseph L. Clark retired and Rev. Peter M. Creed became our new pastor in 2003. A reception and historical display marked the 100th anniversary of the current stone church building. Hurricane Isabel struck on September 18, 2003 and caused major flooding in the church, rectory, and parish hall – as well as the fort and city of Hampton. Repairs were made and on December 6, 2003, at the beginning of Advent, Bishop Emeritus Walter Sullivan installed Father Creed as our pastor. Fr. Creed strengthened lay participation in parish life.
In the summer of 2006 Rev. Anthony W. Morris, C.Ss.R. became pastor of St. Mary’s, while continuing as pastor of St. Joseph’s in Buckroe. He oversaw numerous renovations of the church buildings and grounds, including a new stone and concrete ramp to allow easy access to the church.
Rev. Peter E. Sousa, C.Ss.R. became pastor of St. Mary’s and St. Joseph’s in August 2008. Father Sousa serves as the Reserve TRADOC Chaplain at Fort Monroe, and is also the Vicar of the Redemptorist Vice Province of Richmond.
This year marked our Sesquicentennial Anniversary. We installed a beautiful Casavant organ console and digital pipes to add to the original pipe work, thus making the organ better suited to accompany music for mass, from the quiet sounds needed for the psalm, the larger sounds for congregational hymns, and the grand sounds for wedding recessionals and postludes. The Lucite coverings on the southern stained glass windows were replaced. The bells were repaired and call the faithful to worship before each mass, toll the hours and the Angelus daily, making our presence known throughout the surrounding area. We commissioned a unique hand-made anniversary rosary. For the first time in many years we produced a parish photo directory. An anniversary logo was designed and a comprehensive history was written. A year of celebrations, it began with a Parish Picnic in the fall, followed by the revival of an old tradition of sharing a Parish Thanksgiving Dinner the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Then we held special weekend masses to celebrate anniversaries of weddings and sacraments that had occurred at St. Mary’s, and to honor the military. It culminated with an Anniversary Mass, with several of our former pastors and our Bishop Emeritus, Walter Sullivan who had been associate pastor here, each wearing handmade vestments featuring the anniversary logo.
This year marked the decommissioning of Fort Monroe and saw our merger with St. Joseph’s and St. Vincent de Paul to form the Peninsula Cluster. As we continue on after the Sesquicentennial celebrations and the formation of the cluster parish, we stand with those who have gone before, seeking unity and following our faith. We pray it forward to the future generations who will worship in the beautiful and sacred space within this stone church by the sea.
The church was painted, confessionals restored, and the tabernacle was placed back in the sanctuary, in celebration of the Eucharistic Revival.
Pastors of Saint Mary Star of the Sea
Rev. Father Joseph Plunkett, 1860-1863
Rev. Father Thomas Oulette, S.J., 1864-1865
Rev. Father Matthew O’Keefe, 1865-1870
Rev. Father John J. Doherty, 1871-1872
Rev. Father Henry J. Cutler, 1872-1873
Rev. Father John P. Hagan, 1873-1875
Rev. Father Patrick J. Hasty, 1875-1877
Rev. Father Thomas J. Murray, 1877-1886
Rev. Father Thomas J. Mercer, 1886-1901
Rev. Father William A. O’Hara, 1901
Rev. Father William A. Fallon, 1901-1908
Rev. Father Thomas J. Wilson, 1908-1920
Rev. Father William T. Whearty, 1920-1921
Rev. Father William A. Gill, 1921-1933
Rev. Father Richard B. Washington, 1933-1936
Rev. Father Joseph F. Govaert, 1936-1940
Rev. Father Rev. Father John Igoe, 1940-1950
Rev. Father Julius O. Schmidhauser, 1950-1958
Rev. Father John F. McMahon, 1959-1961
Rev. Father John J. Riordan, 1961-1968
Rev. Father Robert J. McEleney, 1968-1971
Rev. Father Raymond E. Schantz, 1971-1975
Rev. Father Leonard Cordier, 1975-1977
Rev. Father Eugene Daigle, 1977-1979
Rev. Father Charles W. Brickner, O. Praem, 1979-1990
Rev. Father Joseph L. Clark, 1990-2003
Rev. Father Peter M. Creed, 2003-2006
Rev. Father Anthony Morris, CSsR, 2006-2008
Rev. Father Peter E. Sousa, CSsR, 2008-2011
Rev. Monsignor Walter C. Barrett, Jr., 2011- 2022
Rev. Father Romeo D. Jazmin, 2022-Present
Parish History written by Shannon McCall