George Washington and the Basilica of Saint Mary

George Washington — an Episcopalian in Virginia, a colony where it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith until after the Revolutionary War — made a large contribution toward purchasing land for a Catholic church in Alexandria. He reportedly discussed the subject while celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day at the home of his close friend, Colonel John Fitzgerald, an Irish-born Catholic who became General Washington’s aide-de-camp. The Fitzgerald home was located at the southeast corner of King and Fairfax streets, now site of the Burke and Herbert Bank building. The land purchased for the original Saint Mary church, with Washington’s financial aid, is now the site of our cemetery located at 1001 South Royal Street.

In 1932, Alexandria joined the rest of the nation in celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of George Washington. Because he lived most of his adult life at Mount Vernon, owned townhouses and carried on business in Alexandria, the city then — and still — considers itself Washington’s hometown. In fact, in 1932, the Mount Vernon estate was within the boundaries of Saint Mary parish.

Father Thomas A. Rankin, pastor at Saint Mary from 1930 to 1942, was an avid student of Virginia history. He envisioned a great ceremony at Saint Mary to honor the president who was linked with the founding of the parish. Accordingly, a Solemn High Mass of thanksgiving was celebrated here on February 21, 1932. Father Richard Blackburn Washington of Hot Springs, Virginia, a descendent of President Washington, was the celebrant. The church was decorated in red, white and blue bunting. Bishop Andrew J. Brenna of Richmond, Bishop John J. McNamara of Baltimore and 30 other priests participated. The U.S. Marines provided an honor guard and a trumpeter from the Marine Band played with the parish choir. The church was packed with standing room only! The Mass was reportedly “one of the most colorful celebrations ever staged in historic Saint Mary’s Church.” (Baltimore Catholic newspaper, February 22, 1932.)

– Kitty Guy, Parish Historian

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