Christ Church’s 250th anniversary: From Washington to COVID-19

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Christ Church’s 250th anniversary: From Washington to COVID-19
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Christ Church. (Courtesy of Christ Church)
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By Laura Van Pate | lvanpate@alextimes.com and Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

When Christ Church first opened its doors in 1773, Alexandria was a young city in the colony of Virginia. A British flag would have flown outside. The Declaration of Independence was still three years away. The British surrender at Yorktown was nine years distant – and the Constitutional Convention 14 years hence.

In 1773, George Washington was a gentleman farmer concerned with his lands, though according to his diary, he worshipped at the new church soon after it opened.

During Colonial times, Christ Church was part of the Church of England – which was then the official church of Virginia – and the colony was divided into parishes. According to the Christ Church website, membership was not voluntary.

“All residents of a parish were members of it and required to pay taxes to sustain it,” according to the Christ Church website. “An elected vestry of twelve men conducted the business of the parish, which consisted primarily of religious activities and provision of the equivalent of modern social welfare services.”

Following the Revolutionary War, Virginia’s Church of England parishes evolved into the Episcopal Church.

“This change meant the end of government support and protection,” according to the Christ Church website. “Unlike many Virginia parishes, Christ Church survived and grew through the support of local residents like George Washington and … clerical leadership.”

Robert E. Lee attended Christ Church starting at age three, according to the Christ Church website. Unlike most churches, Christ Church continued holding services and operating as a church even after the Union Army occupied Alexandria in 1861.

Numerous presidents have visited Christ Church, including President Franklin Roosevelt, who went on New Year’s Day 1942, accompanied by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Church, situated on Cameron Street between North Washington and North Columbus Streets, is surrounded by gardens and a graveyard.

Christ Church remembered those who died during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy of Christ Church)

Christ Church has remained a vital part of Alexandria’s community throughout its 250-year history. For a recent example, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, white flags were placed in the Christ Church graveyard. A sign in the graveyard, which is open to the public, read, “Each flag represents the death of one of our fellow Alexandrians from COVID-19. … All are welcome to come, to pray, to remember.”

Honoring Christ Church’s history

While the people that attend the church have changed since 1773, the monumental anniversary continues to inspire parishioners.

“We’ve been celebrating all year,” Rev. Noelle York-Simmons, who has been rector at Christ Church for seven years, said. “One of the ways we’re celebrating is having a special preaching service throughout 2023 for our parishioners. We are so excited to celebrate our community, our history and our future.”

Each month, Christ Church has held a special event or hosted guests to come into the church. Starting in January 2023, the church held a presentation given by a history team to tell the story of Christ Church and the role it’s had during the past two-and-a-half centuries.

In February, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, was a guest lecturer, along with Rev. E. Mark Stevenson, a diocesan bishop for the Diocese of Virginia. Other notable guest lecturers for the special monthly preaching service have included March visitor Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., known for her use of religion to fight racism, and Rev. A. Katherine Grieb, Ph.D., director of the Center of Anglican Communion Studies.

“Our parish has more than 1,600 registered members, and about an average of 370 attend Christ Church each week for service, so we wanted to do something special for them – like famous guest speaker services – during our 250th anniversary year,” York-Simmons said.

Besides the guest lecturer services, Christ Church has had many fun events to celebrate the anniversary. On May 7, the church held a music recital featuring Director of Music Jason Abel and a performance by the Christ Church Choir.

On May 13, the church held an anniversary gala hosted by ministry partner Virginia Theological Seminary, which featured dinner, dancing and celebrations of the community’s past, present and future.

In September, Christ Church had a block party to celebrate its anniversary complete with music and dancing, and a group of parishioners took a week-long trip to England to visit historical sights in the Episcopal tradition. The London trip ended with a few days of prayer and worship at Canterbury Cathedral, which is one of the oldest Christian churches in England.

Finally, in October, Christ Church decided to have a special event called Outreach Sunday, where parishioners learned about past members of the church who have gone above and beyond to help those in Alexandria who need it, including the poor, those living with addictions and refugees.

Christ-centered in everything

All of the events that Christ Church has held this year have reminded parishioners that Jesus is the main focus of both the church and the lives of congregants.

“Christ before us, Christ behind us, Christ among us,” York-Simmons said during a service. “These words are the theme of this celebratory year, reminding us that Christ is central to everything we do, say, and believe in our church community, and has been for a quarter of a millennium.”

Christ Church has been celebrating its 250th anniversary all year in many different ways. (Courtesy of Christ Church)

Parishioners from Christ Church believe this year is not only about celebrating or focusing on Christ, but reflecting on the church as a whole and remembering Christ Church is a family.

“I first joined Christ Church because I really liked the work that it was doing with the Alexandria community, and also I wanted to further myself spiritually,” Libby Witt, an 11-year parishioner at Christ Church, said. “I think this year is giving us the opportunity to not only celebrate the amazing work we’ve accomplished in the past, but also allows us to continue doing great things while also bettering ourselves as a parish.

“I haven’t been going to Christ Church as long as some of the other members, but what’s amazing about Christ Church is that no matter if you’ve been going their a day or a hundred years, we’re all a part of the same family, and we get to celebrate this momentous anniversary together,” Witt said.

Anne Shine, an 85-year-old parishioner at Christ Church, had similar thoughts about this season.

“I’ve been going to Christ Church since I was three years old, and it’s had an amazing impact on my life,” Shine said. “I think this year’s been amazing to not only show the Alexandria community what Christ Church has done but also to continue promoting our church for future events. I really love going to Christ Church because it’s like family to me and I couldn’t think of a more deserving church to be celebrating its 250th anniversary.”

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