The Church of Saint Mary was founded as a Roman Catholic parish in 1795 by the Very Reverend Francis Ignatius Neale, S.J., President of Georgetown College and Pastor of Holy Trinity Church (established 1787). The Church of Saint Mary is distinguished as the “eldest daughter” of the Church in the Commonwealth of Virginia and West Virginia, which existed as a single state territory until 1863.
Before the formation of the United States of America, the Commonwealth of Virginia was a vast territory that included the State of West Virginia. The two “Port Cities” of Alexandria (1749) and Georgetown (1751) stood as independent jurisdictions, which were later incorporated into the District of Columbia that Congress and President George Washington formed. In 1790, President Washington and the United States Congress established the District of Columbia (now the City of Washington, D.C.) Washington, D.C. was completely destroyed by the War of 1812 and by 1847, the city of Alexandria was incorporated into the Commonwealth of Virginia.
As reflected in the annals of the Diocese of Richmond, the Church of Saint Mary in Alexandria holds the unique distinction of being the first official Roman Catholic parish in the Commonwealth of Virginia:
“There were few Catholics within that vast territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River. Harsh laws had discouraged them from settling in colonial Virginia. It was not until the passing of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786 that Catholics were free to worship openly in the Old Dominion. Within ten years, Catholic communities began to form. St. Mary’s at Alexandria was established in 1795 as the first Catholic church in Virginia.
Records from 1794 show that the Catholic congregation in Norfolk owned a parcel of land for religious purposes. More precisely, the Norfolk land was held by the Norfolk Catholic community’s lay trustees. It was their conflict with their pastor over this land that prompted Vatican authorities to persuade the Pope [Pius VII] to set up a Virginia diocese with a residential bishop to suppress the ‘Norfolk Schism.’
As the first Bishop of Richmond, the Pope Pius VII chose Father Patrick Kelly, then president of St. John’s Seminary, Birchfield, Ireland. He was consecrated bishop in St. James Chapel, Dublin on August 24, 1820. Arriving in Norfolk the following January, Bishop Kelly found that, not only was his congregation sorely disunited, it was also too poor to support a bishop and his work. The new Bishop was forced to support himself by operating a school. Obtaining permission to return to Ireland, Bishop Kelly left Virginia in July, 1822 without ever having visited his see city, Richmond, which had no organized Catholic community at that time. ”
History of the Diocese of Richmond: http://richmonddiocese.org/about-us/history-of-the-diocese/
In 1781, a Catholic chaplain serving French soldiers in the Army commanded by Marshal Jean- Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, offered the First Holy Mass in Alexandria city. With the assistance from Rochambeau’s army, General George Washington secured a victory at Yorktown, Virginia over the British forces in the Revolutionary War. When Rochambeau left Virginia in 1782, the need for a place for Catholics to worship became more urgent. A testimony to this fact exists in the letter from the French Revolution exile and priest, Abbé Jean Dubois, S.S., following his 1791 visit to Alexandria city. Abbé Dubois wrote the following to Colonel John Fitzgerald (former Aide-de-Camp to General Washington during the Revolutionary War and prominent Alexandria resident) in a letter:
“I hold myself subject to the direction of the Bishop of Baltimore, whether I will settle for a while at Richmond. If My ministry would be agreeable in your city, it will be a pleasure and an honor to go there from time to time to exercise its functions; I do not ask any contribution for this, I wish but the consolation of being of use. . . . Although a Frenchman I begin to speak several words of your English and I hope to speak it perfectly in a time.”
In 1826, Abbé Dubois was installed as the Third Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York until his death on December 20, 1842. Additionally, Bishop Dubois went on to found and serve as the first president of Mount Saint Mary’s College (now University) in Emmitsburg, Maryland, site of the major Seminary and second oldest Catholic university in the United States.
On March 17, 1788, Colonel Fitzgerald hosted a dinner for prominent Maryland and Virginia citizens at his home in Alexandria, hoping to raise building funds for the first permanent Catholic parish in the Commonwealth. Verified documentation from the period exists to prove that General George Washington himself made a contribution to the fund. Additionally, Thornton Alexander (heir to John Alexander, the founder of the City of Alexandria) and Colonel Robert T. Hooe, (a Protestant gentlemen who served in the War with Colonel Fitzgerald) agreed to donate a portion of the land at Church and South Washington Streets, then just outside the Alexandria city limits. It was here that Virginia Catholics built the first brick structure known as the Church of Saint Mary. The cornerstone was laid in 1795, and work continued in 1796, according to letters from Archbishop John Carroll, S.J. of Baltimore. The land which later became and still remains the Church of Saint Mary’s cemetery, the first Catholic cemetery in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In 1810, a parcel of land closer to the center of Alexandria was purchased for the new church. By 1826, Reverend Father Joseph W. Fairclough, Pastor, erected the Sanctuary and the major portion of the present church at its current location – 310 South Royal Street.
Throughout the centuries that followed, the Church of Saint Mary has played a crucial role in the growth of Catholicism in Virginia. From her inception, the Church of Saint Mary became the “Mother Church”to mission churches in Maryland, Virginia and WestVirginia. Among the earliest of the “mission” churches was Saint Ignatius in Oxon Hill, Maryland, which remained a Mission until 1948 (now part of the Archdiocese of Washington). These missions have flourished, becoming independent parishes within the Diocese of Richmond (1820), the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston (1850), and the Diocese of Arlington (1974), which now numbers over sixty-nine parishes. With the current enrollment exceeding 700 students, the Church of Saint Mary parish elementary school, founded in 1869, remains the largest elementary school in the Diocese.
In 1891 when the Richmond Diocese assumed jurisdiction for the Church of Saint Mary, it inherited an established, vibrant and thriving parish with a historic, well preserved church, and a parish school of quality reputation. She remains the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Jesuit-founded Maryland Assistancy churches. For the faithful of the Diocese of Arlington, the Church of Saint Mary inspires all who seek out Catholic spirituality in her beauty, rich history, sacred musicality, and active pastoral liturgy.