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Details of schism in Catholic Church at Norfolk uncovered by Richmond based genealogist.

Details of schism in Catholic Church uncovered by Richmond based genealogist.

Few people know that the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, was created as a result of a schism within the congregation at Norfolk in 1818/19, as the only published accounts of the same appear to be at the official website of that Diocese and in John Gilmary Shea’s History of the Catholic Church in the United States (1890).

Shea identified Eugene Higgins, a prominent merchant, whose portrait, along with that of his wife Eliza, hang in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, as playing a key role in the resolution of the schism.

Michael Elwood Pollock, owner of Anquestory Genealogical Research and Consulting Services, Mechanicsville, VA, learned this while researching Eugene for his client, Thomas Higgins of Washington, DC , and was prompted to ask, as the late Paul Harvey might have, what about “the rest of the story”?

“Higgins’ contemporary accounts of the schism give a substantially different version of its causes than that cited by Shea. His letters written to Ambrose Marechal, Archbishop of the Diocese of Baltimore, Maryland, which then included all of Virginia, were mentioned in Shea’s work and are now housed at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, MD,” according to Pollock. “Based upon Higgins’ account, I question why the events in Norfolk are characterized as a schism”, continued Pollock, “but there appear to be more material relating to the schism than we have thus far been able to secure or even identify”.

“You would expect some of this material would be in the archives of the Diocese of Richmond, but it is not”, said Pollock. “Eugene’s letters mention another member of the congregation who was sent to Rome to petition the Pope and who was granted an audience, so we remain hopeful of finding material in places other than St. Mary’s and perhaps not just at the Vatican”.

He praised the assistance given by the archives staff at St. Mary’s, saying “most of the problems seem to be related to the fact that while records were indeed preserved, it was largely done without any thought to making them accessible to researchers in the future, so records were microfilmed, if even microfilmed, without using filters to make the images gray-scale rather than black & white, often rendering photocopies illegible. Bound manuscripts have inside margins too tight to allow clean images of the full page to be photocopied or filmed, at least until quite recently. Many items are not catalogued or shelved with other related items”.

“This has become a project that seems likely to exceed the financial resources of my client, who is retired, but is, in our opinion, surely too important not just to Tom, but also the remainder of Eugene’s descendants and even to those interested in the history of both the Catholic Church and city of Norfolk, to be dropped without making an appeal to that larger ‘audience’ for assistance. Just think. So far as I have been able to determine, this is the only schism of the Catholic Church to have taken place in the United States and it happened in Virginia!“, Pollock noted. “For that reason, we intend to donate a copy of the material we collect to the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, for portraits of Eugene and his wife already hang there and this material would be a perfect commentary on why the portraits deserve to be there!”

“We are looking for information as to repositories which have records pertaining to this schism, and for copies of such records found, as well as contributions to defray the costs relating to the search for and securing of copies of any records found. We intend to acknowledge all contributions, regardless of kind, but for those donating money, we will probably not acknowledge the specific amount donated, unless coming in the form of a grant, because we do not want to seem to put pressure on donating a specific amount of money”.

“We are also interested in contacting other descendants of Eugene Higgins, especially those with personal papers, anecdotes, etc. Thomas’ ancestor and Eugene’s grandson Daniel Witter Higgins is purported to have served as a cabin boy on Admiral Dewey’s Expedition to Japan in 1854, but we are told by the National Archives that Daniel would likely be mentioned only in a ship’s log, yet we have no idea of aboard what ship”.

For further information, please contact Michael Elwood Pollock .

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