Historical Timeline

1781: In thanksgiving for victory at the Battle of Yorktown, a Catholic priest serving the Comte de Rochambeau offered the First Roman Catholic Mass in the City of Alexandria. The prohibition against Catholic worship was lifted for this occasion.

1785: Thomas Jefferson issued the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, allowing Catholics to worship openly in the Commonwealth of Virginia (which at the time included the area that later became West Virginia).

1785 – 1795: A log cabin located at the corner of North Royal and Princess Streets was used for the celebration of Holy Mass. This was believed to be an Anglican “Chapel of Ease” which was abandoned after the opening of Christ Church on South Washington Street.

1788: On March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day), Colonel John Fitzgerald, former Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, held a dinner in his home to raise funds for the construction of a Catholic Church. George Washington made the first contribution, equivalent to approximately $1,200 to the undertaking.

1789: Notice appeared in the Virginia Gazette and Alexandria Advertiser on May 21 warning individuals not to remove building materials appropriated for the building of the Roman Catholic Church.

1795: The Very Reverend Francis Ignatius Neale, S.J., President of Georgetown College and Pastor of Holy Trinity Church, established the Church of Saint Mary, the first permanent parish established for Catholic worship. The cornerstone was laid on land that later became Saint Mary’s Cemetery. The Most Reverend John Carroll, SJ, first Bishop of Baltimore, visited the new church during its construction. However, it was never completed and was razed in 1830. In 1839, bricks from the old church were used to build the portico of the Lyceum, currently located on South Washington Street.

1810: Reverend Father Joseph W. Fairclough, a missionary from England, became Pastor and arranged for the purchase of the Chapel Alley Meeting House from the Methodist Congregation on South Royal Street.

1826: Father Fairclough laid the cornerstone for the Sanctuary and the major portion of the Basilica building as it stands today on South Royal Street.

1827: On March 4, Very Reverend Francis Ignatius Neale, S.J., President of Georgetown College, returned to dedicate the new church.

1856: Under the pastorate of Reverend Father John E. Blox, SJ, the church expanded significantly, adding a new marble altar and tabernacle, a new organ, stained glass windows, a new bell and belfry tower (then the highest in the City). On June 30, Most Reverend Francis Patrick Kendrick, D.D., Sixth Archbishop of Baltimore, consecrated the Tabernacle and Main Altar (with the installation of the relics).

1857 – 1872: Reverend Father Peter Kroes, SJ expands the church by adding St. Joseph’s Chapel, possibly a winter use addition. This area later becomes the Sacristy and the Confessionals.

1872 – 1891: Reverend Father Dennis J. O’Kane, SJ served as pastor, undertaking numerous projects with local architect Philip Dwyer to improve the interior and the exterior façade of the church. In 1874, the Committee appointed by the Catholic Benevolent Union of Virginia published A Brief Sketch of the History of the Basilica of St. Mary.

1891: The Diocese of Richmond assumed jurisdiction for the Church of Saint Mary, when Alexandria City officially seceded from the District of Columbia, becoming part of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

1894: During the pastorate of Reverend Father Henry J. Cutler (1891 – 1915), the church is rebuilt with a new 135-foot belfry and greater seating capacity, resulting in the balance of the church structure as it is known today.

1895: In observance of the Centennial of the parish, the Most Reverend Augustine Van der Vyver, Sixth Bishop of Richmond re-dedicated the restored and refurbished church.

1929: Under the pastorate of Reverend Father William A. McKeefry, the church is damaged in the “great fire of 1929” which primarily destroyed the ceiling. Father McKeefry died not long after the fire while actively engaged in the restoration of the church.

1930 – 1942: Under the pastorate of the Right Reverend Thomas A. Rankin, VG, the church undertook the extensive repairs for recovery from the great fire. Monsignor Rankin improved the church adding the ambulatory and sacristy, while purchasing the house at 314 Duke Street, now named in his honor.

1945: With the pastorate of the Right Reverend Monsignor Edward L. Stephens, VF, numerous improvements were made to the parish to mark the Parish Sesquicentennial (150th Anniversary of the founding). Reverend Father Robert F. Beattie wrote the One Hundred and Fifty Years for Christ: 1795 – 1945 to document the parish history.

1948: On May 5, the Right Reverend Monsignor Edward L. Stephens, VF, re-consecrated the church by mandate of the Bishop of Richmond (mandatum Episcopi).

1958: On June 22, the Ancient Order of Hibernians donated a bronze tablet at the entrance of the basilica that commemorates the founding of the parish by Very Reverend Francis I. Neale, SJ and Colonel John Fitzgerald.

1974: Most Reverend Thomas J. Welsh, Auxiliary Bishop of Philadelphia and Rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary (Pennsylvania) was installed as the First Bishop of Arlington. The Church of St. Thomas More was elevated to become the new diocesan cathedral. The Diocese of Arlington began with more than 136,000 Catholics, sixty diocesan and thirty-three religious priests, forty-nine parishes and seven mission churches.

1995: Under the pastorate of Reverend Monsignor Stanley J. Krempa, the church engaged in an extensive renovation including new lighting and interior painting in the Sanctuary for the Bicentennial Celebration. A committee of parishioners under the leadership of Ms. Kitty Guy published the comprehensive history book entitled St. Mary’s: 200 Years for Christ.

2010: In February, the parish embarked on a Sanctuary and Nave renovation under the pastorate of Reverend Father Dennis W. Kleinmann. Black and white marble tile were installed in the Sanctuary, and a new Reposition Altar and reredos were installed. Italian white marble statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph return to their places in the Sanctuary on new marble pedestals.

2011: Due to the July earthquake centered in Louisa County, Virginia, bricks falling from the parapet above the Sanctuary severely damaged the skylight and shattered the right arm of the corpus on the Crucifix. Extensive restorations to the crucifix, the skylight and the stained glass windows throughout the church followed over the course of the year.

2012 – 2014: Donations from parishioners provided two new statues: the restored Carrera marble statue of the 100-year old statue of the Sacred Heart Pleading from the closed Church of Saint Mary (Troy, NY); and the newly-commissioned Italian statue of Saint Thomas More, based on the Hans Holbein portrait.

2018: On Sunday, January 14, 2018, the Church of Saint Mary is officially designated as a Minor Basilica by the Vatican under the episcopate of the Most Reverend Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, fourth Bishop of Arlington, and the pastorate of the Very Reverend Father Edward C. Hathaway.

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