A parish with a mission mind

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Located in Middleburg, a small town in Loudoun County with a population of less than 1,000, St. Stephen the Martyr Parish started as a mission church in 1957, when Father Albert Pereira, then pastor of St. John the Apostle Parish in Leesburg, would travel to Middleburg to celebrate Sunday Mass. About 107 local Catholics attended the weekly Mass, celebrated in the Middleburg community center.

This continued until the early 1960s, when a familiar face started coming to the makeshift church - President John F. Kennedy. He and his family rented a home in nearby Glen Ora for weekend visits and wanted to attend Mass with the local community. With the arrival of the presidential parishioner, the small church community had to learn to work around secret service agents, reporters and gawkers. During this time, Richmond Bishop John C. Russell permitted the community to build a proper church for the mission.

"The community thought it was a little unseemly (the president) was going to Mass at a community center, so they got a group of people together - 10 or 15 of the original parishioners - to put up the seed money to have a parish built," said Father William Schardt, who has been pastor of St. Stephen the Martyr for five years.

The church was built in 1963, with a room specially designed for the president's use with bulletproof glass and a phone line that connected to the White House. The president attended five Masses at the church before his death in November of that year. The last Mass he attended was only 12 days before his assassination.

Years later, in 1975, St. Stephen the Martyr was named a parish, with Father Walter Malloy as the first pastor. The same year, a rectory was built on the property.

As the years passed, the parish grew into its own devout community, but also developed ecumenical friendships with other Middleburg churches. Every year, the parish works with local Christian communities for an ecumenical Thanksgiving service, a summer vacation Bible school and an annual free church homecoming celebration, which commemorates a church several denominations of Christians used for worship during the early 19th century.

For more than 10 years, the parish has been involved with Seven Loaves Services, a food pantry started by Rev. Martin Spillman, a former minister at the Middleburg United Methodist Church, in 1994. Last year, the pantry served 670 families more than 200,000 pounds of donated food.

"It's all made possible through the area churches coming together and providing the funding," said George Lengauer, a parishioner of St. Stephen the Martyr since 1986.

As the Catholic community in Middleburg and the surrounding areas of Clarke, Loudoun, Fauquier and Prince William counties has grown, St. Stephen the Martyr has made adjustments to accommodate the increasing numbers. At first, the parish made do by having multiple Masses at the same time, at the church and the school gym of nearby Notre Dame Academy.

"We are a very rural parish, or we were once upon a time, taking parts of Prince William County and Loudoun County and Fauquier County," Father Schardt said. "All those people were coming here for Mass and we were really overrun."

In 2000, the parish began "Masses of convenience" in other areas to reach out to Catholics who were unable to travel to Middleburg every week. These Masses were celebrated in Haymarket and South Riding and continued until 2005, when Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde declared them missions: St. Katharine Drexel in Gainesville and Corpus Christi in South Riding.

(Read more about the missions here.)

Today, the parish and both missions are thriving. St. Stephen the Martyr has 873 registered parishioners; St. Katharine Drexel celebrates Masses at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville and counts 1,452 registered parishioners; and Corpus Christi has Mass at Hutchison Farm Elementary School in South Riding with 3,400 registered parishioners. The result is a Catholic community that spans distance and numbers and works together for the greater good of the Church in the surrounding areas.

Keeping it all together is a staff that splits its time between locations and plenty of volunteers - parishioners who come early on Sundays to set up chairs in school gyms and clergy who take time out of busy Sundays to help with Masses.

"When the two missions were started, we really shared staff and programs and tried to keep things as common to the three places as possible," Father Schardt said. "In the early days, having to rely on visiting priests with each place was very confusing. Even today, there are Sundays and I'll wonder where I'm supposed to be."

Today, Father Schardt serves as pastor of St. Stephen the Martyr and St. Katharine Drexel. At Corpus Christi, Father Michael G. Taylor serves as parochial administrator. Visiting priests fill in the gaps.

Trudy Maher is director of liturgy and music for St. Stephen the Martyr and St. Katharine Drexel. For her, one of the best things about the parish is the way the community works together to keep things running.

"The people in the community have responded so well to take active roles - ushers, eucharistic ministers, lectors," she said. "They all perform these services with such grace and faithfulness. They're always there."

At St. Katharine Drexel, volunteers work together to operate a meal delivery program for those who are ill, as well as a food pantry that is run with St. Paul Anglican Church in Haymarket. Last year, through a parish bake sale, churchgoers were able to raise enough money to provide 60 families with complete Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

All of this cooperation has resulted in communities that, though distinct and separate, are close-knit and devout.

"I've only been here just over three years and the first thing I noticed was at this location, how the people came to Sunday Eucharist and participate so beautifully and how welcoming and warm and kind the people here are," Maher said. "It's very clear that liturgy is the source and summit of the Faith and Father takes that very seriously and embraces it wholeheartedly."

At St. Stephen the Martyr, parishioners enjoy the small-town atmosphere and the easy community vibe.

"It's wonderful on a Sunday morning to have such a small community to celebrate with and to get to know everyone," Father Schardt said. "It's very different from a thousand-seat church."

Lengauer agreed, calling the parish "wonderful."

"I like it being small because you get to know your fellow parishioners. You don't even have to have a social event to get to know them; you can get to know them by seeing them here every Sunday and after Mass and in the local community," he said.

And even though the mission churches are set in public schools, parishioners say they are not lacking in holiness or community.

"The thing about St. Katharine is, it's by its own definition a church without walls. The people are what hold it together. Their spirit of holiness creates this church every Sunday," said Katherine Frick, who has been pastoral coordinator of St. Katharine Drexel for four years. "We don't have the huge building, we don't have the statues, but we do have the people."

In the future, Father Schardt hopes both missions will be able to grow into independent parishes with permanent church buildings. In the meantime, he and his staff will continue to work hard to keep the deep sense of spirituality alive at St. Stephen the Martyr and the missions.

Quick facts

St. Stephen the Martyr Church

23331 Sam Fred Rd.,

Middleburg, Va. 20117

540/687-6433

Pastor: Fr. William B. Schardt

Deacon: Jack M. Ligon

DRE: Dennis Pierce

Mass schedule:

Sat.: 5 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 5 p.m (Spanish)

Weekdays: 9 a.m.

Parishioners: 873;

St. Katharine Drexel Mission

14535 John Marshall Hwy.,

Suite 210,

Gainesville, Va., 20155

703/753-8444

Pastor: Fr. William B. Schardt

Pastoral Coordinator: Katherine D. Frick

Mass Schedule:

Sun.: 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m.

At Bull Run Middle School,

6307 Catharpin Rd.

Gainesville, VA 20155

Parishioners: 1,452

Corpus Christi Mission

Corpus Christi Catholic Center

15100 Enterprise Ct., Suite 300,

Chantilly, Va., 20151

703/378-1037

Parochial administrator: Fr. Michael G. Taylor

Deacon: Nicholas J. La Duca, Jr.

DRE: Theresa McGuire

Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 5 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 8:30 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m.

Mon. and Fri.: 9:30 a.m.

Tues. and Thurs.: 12:15 p.m.

Weekend Masses at Hutchison Farm Elementary School

42819 Center St.

South Riding, Va. 20152

Parishioners: 3,400

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011