St. Mary reflects on legacy of faith after basilica designation

St. Mary reflects on legacy of faith after basilica designation
St. Mary, a sanctuary for Alexandria Catholics since 1795, is now a basilica (Photo Credit: Alexa Epitropoulos)

By Alexa Epitropoulos |

St. Mary Catholic Church has become the region of Northern Virginia’s – and the diocese of Arlington’s – first basilica.

The Holy See, or the Vatican, named the historic St. Mary a minor basilica earlier this month. Founded in 1795 on South Washington Street with the help of a loan from George Washington, the church relocated in the 19th century to its current building at 310 S. Royal St. The church announced the designation during mass on Sunday.

The basilica designation is given to Catholic churches for a number of reasons, said Father Edward Hathaway, pastor of St. Mary. It can be given to a church that has the relic of a saint or due to a church’s style of architecture. There’s also a third reasoning.

“Our case for being named a basilica is because of the important role that St. Mary played in the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia … It was the first Catholic church in the region and many daughter parishes were nurtured through St. Mary,” Hathaway said. “As the region has grown, so has the influence of St. Mary.”

The church’s history can be traced to a time when Catholics couldn’t openly practice their religion in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That would change with the founding of the United States and the introduction of the Virginia Bill of Rights.

A chaplain who was part of Rochambeau’s French Army held the first open mass in Alexandria while the French forces were on their way to aid General George Washington in the Battle of Yorktown, according to the Office of Historic Alexandria.

The interior of St. Mary. The structure has been in existence since 1826 (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Though not a Catholic, Washington gave Colonel John Fitzgerald, one of the church’s founding parishioners, a donation to start the church. The church was founded in 1795 and moved into the building it now occupies in 1826. The church – and its congregation – have continued to grow. Since its founding, Hathaway said the church has stood at the center of Alexandria’s ever-expanding community.

“It’s a history tied in with the history of our nation and has connections with the father of our country and who we might call the most significant resident of Alexandria, George Washington, and his aide de camp and friend Colonel Fitzgerald,” Hathaway said.

“Now, [our congregation] is about 7,500 and we have a large school that was founded in 1869. Its 150th anniversary is coming up in 2019. We have over 700 students in grades pre-K through 8 for the parish school,” Hathaway said. “It’s a thriving parish with a lot going on, but with this designation, we’re thinking about the sacrifices and the faith and the fidelity for over 223 years.”

Hathaway started the process of applying for the basilica designation from Rome upon the suggestion of a parishioner. At the time, though, the Bishop of the Diocese of Arlington was close to retirement. Hathaway waited until the Most Reverend Michael Burbidge became bishop in December 2016.

“He did not wait long. I was bishop for about three minutes before he talked with me about this,” Burbidge joked.

“It was one of the first churches I visited after being named the bishop and he asked ‘Bishop, isn’t this church magnificent?’ I said, ‘It truly is,’ especially when he explained the history of the church, which dates back to the 1700s. He said ‘It’s so beautiful, it’s worthy of the title basilica.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is. When can we start?’” Burbidge said.

The process of becoming a basilica involved a number of steps over the course of 2017, including putting together a thorough proposal that displays the history of the church, shows that the church has a vibrant parish, explains how the church plans to open its doors to those who choose to make a pilgrimage, as well as statements concerning the church’s financial stability.

The proposal then went in front of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to the pope’s representative in the U.S. and, finally, to Pope Francis.

“This is not something the church at the Holy See in Rome takes lightly,” Burbidge said. “… When they granted it, it was the fruition of a lot of hope.”

St. Mary’s basilica designation indicates the church has a direct relationship with the

The church’s figure of St. Thomas More, which was dedicated in 2014 (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Vatican and with Pope Francis. It also means that the church will install physical signs that indicate the church is a basilica, including the papal symbol of crossed keys.

Burbidge said the new designation will, ultimately, bring more visitors to St.
Mary and serve as a destination for members of the community, as well as those from
outside the community.

“If they’re in Alexandria, in Old Town, they’ve heard or read about St. Mary church. That’s what a basilica is supposed to do – to open its doors to visitors or people who find their way there who can learn about its role, not only in the Catholic Church, but in the community,” he said.

A number of parishioners expressed excitement about the church’s designation.

“It’s a big honor for the neighborhood. There’s only one basilica within the region.
You either have to go up to Baltimore or down to Norfolk,” Kenneth Wolfe, an Old Town resident and longtime St. Mary member said. “… It means that our church is now directly connected with the Holy See.”

Wolfe said St. Mary is particularly suited to be a basilica due to its status as a visitor-friendly parish.

“One of the many attributes of St. Mary’s is its accessibility. You go to an average church around the region and it’s usually locked, except for mass. In St. Mary, you can go there until 9 at night and it’s completely open for anyone to come in, kneel down and pray,” Wolfe said. “That’s a beauty that will be enhanced with a basilica. I do think more people
will be drawn to St. Mary now that it’s been given this honorific title.”

Kitty Guy, the parish historian who spearheaded writing the bicentennial history of the church, said St. Mary, of all Catholic parishes in the region, deserved the title.

“I think if there’s any Catholic church that deserved it, it would be St. Mary,” Guy said.
A lifetime member of St. Mary, Guy was baptized, received first communion at and was married in the church.

She first became interested in writing a history of the church after a family member died and she was in the midst of settling her estate. At that point, Guy found family records that, in turn, led to St. Mary records. She spent two years writing the volume, which was published in 1995.

“As I kept going back, I became more and more interested,” Guy said. “I thought ‘We’re

One of St. Mary’s more stunning attributes: its stained glass windows (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

going to have a 200th anniversary before too long, so I would like to be the person to write the facts of the church. I had relatives and friends and grandparents and great grandparents’ friends in the church, so it just all tied together.”

Guy said the new designation reflects the overall legacy of the church.

“Today the parish has a vibrant and broad number of spiritual and social programs for all ages which draw members closer to the church. Spiritual services run the gamut, from traditional Latin to contemporary. The St. Vincent de Paul Society has provided needy persons with help, from rent or housing, food and other material needs. St. Mary’s has always been an active participant in A.L.I.V.E and other local service programs. Priests and
parishioners regularly visit the Alexandria jail and nursing homes, bring spiritual
solace and friendship to their residents,” Guy said.

“Many basilicas are large, historically important edifices. This is certainly significant, but more important is a parish’s record of fulfilling Jesus Christ’s mandate to serve all people, even ‘the least of our brothers and sisters’ throughout its history – and hopefully, long into its future.”

Hathaway said the church expects to learn more about special privileges involved in its new status soon. In the meantime, Hathaway is proud to lead a growing congregation and hopes the announcement will attract more potential visitors to the parish – including from those already living in Alexandria.

“I hope that people find it an important part of our community. We’re one of the largest providers of charity through the St. Vincent de Paul society. I hope they find St. Mary is integrated into the local community and that the basilica title creates an opportunity to rediscover the beauty of St. Mary,” Hathaway said.

Burbidge said that the basilica’s creation will be remembered decades – and centuries – from now.

“It makes us part of history. If you look at the history of St. Mary, there’s all kinds of dates that mark different events associated with the church. Now, at this particular date in history, 100 years from now, people will learn ‘Oh, yes, it was in 2018 that this church was named a basilica,’” Burbidge said. “We’re part of living history … It’s a gift to the parish, it’s a gift to the diocese, but we want our basilica to be a gift to the City of Alexandria and a gift to our community. We hope that all of the people in Alexandria, of every creed, share our joy. We want to share our joy with them.”