The Museum of Virginia Catholic History is located in the Crypt, Baptistry, and aisle display cases of The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, Virginia. The museum was started in May of 2003 by Bishop Walter Sullivan who saw the need to preserve and display many rare artifacts that belonged to the Diocese of Richmond.
The Diocese of Richmond, formed from America’s first diocese, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, is among the nation’s eight oldest Catholic dioceses. Erected by decree of Pope Pius VII on July 11, 1820, the Diocese encompassed the entire state of Virginia, including what is now West Virginia.
Early English colonists established harsh laws that made it difficult for Catholics to settle in Virginia. It was not until the passing of Thomas Jefferson & James Madison’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 that Catholics were free to worship openly in the Old Dominion. Within 10 years, Catholic communities began to form. St. Mary’s at Alexandria was established in 1795 as the first Catholic church in Virginia.
The museum currently has a special exhibit called Let Thy Will Be Done! This exhibit is about the Catholic Chaplains and Daughters of Charity in the Civil War in Richmond. This is part of a state-wide commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial (150 years). There are a number of artifacts including civil war uniforms, rosaries, and scenes from a tent mass and wartime hospital. I must say that when I saw the habits of the Daughters of Charity, it looked like they could take to the skies like Sally Field’s The Flying Nun (just kidding). It is a very moving exhibit to see all the sacrifices and faith held by both the soldiers, clergy, and sisters who served in The American Civil War.
Frank Parater (1897-1920) is a man who is currently being considered for cannonization to sainthood. Francis Joseph Parater was born into a devout Catholic family on October 10, 1897, in the city of Richmond, Virginia. Frank was educated at the Xaverian Brother’s School (currently Saint Patrick’s School) and at Benedictine High School in Richmond. He graduated in 1917, top in his class and valedictorian. In his late teens, Frank became very active in the Boy Scouts of America. His involvement was so exemplary that he was asked to serve in roles of leadership even at his young age. As a scout, he achieved the rank of Eagle. A remarkable young man, Frank was known for his ideals and practical judgment. At a time when the Catholic faith was not considered to be a social asset, Frank was well thought of by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
In 1917, Frank began studies for the priesthood at Belmont Abbey Seminary College in North Carolina. He continued to lead a very devout life as is detailed in the journal he kept while there. His stated goal was: “To strive by every possible means to become a pure and worthy priest.” During this period, he continued to go to Mass and receive Holy Communion daily, prayed the Rosary, and went to confession weekly in accord with a Rule of Life he had drawn up for himself. He had an abiding sense that “…the Sacred Heart never fails those that love Him.” The Benedictine Fathers made him aware of the spirituality of the Little Flower, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus. While at college seminary, Frank made the decision to study for the diocesan priesthood. This decision was made with the assistance of his spiritual director and after discussions with the Right Reverend Denis J. O’Connell, D.D., Bishop of Richmond. Frank decided that there was such a great need for priestly ministry in his native Virginia that he would forego his desire for monastic life in favor of direct service to the people of God.
In the fall of 1919, Bishop O’Connell, who had been a former Rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, sent Frank to study at the North American College. Frank was instantly popular among his fellow seminarians and displayed a warm sense of humor and cheer as he continued to deepen his spiritual life. In December he wrote an Act of Oblation to the Sacred Heart of Jesus which was sealed and marked to be read only in the event of his death. Frank expressed his motivation in making his offering in this way:
I have nothing to leave or to give but my life and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills…This is what I live for and in case of death what I die for. Since my childhood, I have wanted to die for God and my neighbor. Shall I have this grace? I do not know, but if I go on living, I shall live for this same purpose; every action of my life here is offered to God for the spread and success of the Catholic Church in Virginia. I shall be of more service to my diocese in Heaven than I can ever be on earth.
In late January 1920, Frank Parater contracted rheumatism that developed into rheumatic fever causing him tremendous suffering. He was taken to the hospital of the Blue Nuns on January 27th. The spiritual director of the college, Father Mahoney, explained to Frank that his illness was grave, as he administered Last Rites. Frank wished to get out of bed and kneel on the floor to receive Holy Communion as Viaticum, but was prevented from doing so. With great devotion, and unafraid of death, he knelt on the bed and made his last Holy Communion. On February 6, Monsignor Charles A. O’Hern, rector of the college, offered the Mass of the Sacred Heart for Frank. Frank Parater died the following day.
In 2001, the Most Reverend Walter F. Sullivan having received authorization from the Holy See, initiated the cause of canonization for Frank Parater by establishing a Tribunal to examine the holiness of his life. Father J. Scott Duarte, J.C.D., a priest of the Diocese of Richmond, is the present Postulator for the canonization cause of the Servant of God, Seminarian Francis J. Parater.
More information about Frank Parater is available on the Diocese of Richmond Website:
One of the prized possessions of the museum is a small wood carving of Jesus that was done by Blessed Pope John Paul II while he was a cardinal in Rome. The carving called “Man of Sorrows” was given to a fellow bishop who served in Virginia. A visit to the Museum of Catholic Virginia History is well worth your time. The museum is available to visit by appointment only and there is no admission charge. Please call (804) 359-5651 for tours. The museum is new and is looking for additional donations to expand its displays, so any contributions are welcome.
One book I would like to recommend is called Commonwealth Catholicism: A History of the Catholic Church in Virginia by Father Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. He has written a wonderful and comprehensive history of the Catholic Faith in the Old Dominion. Fr. Fogarty is the Professor of Religious Studies and History at The University of Virginia.