Up from the basement

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In 1927, automobiles were expensive - and rare. For Catholics in the 24th and South Ives Streets area of Arlington at the time, the nearest place to worship was St. Rita Church in Alexandria. While just several miles, the lack of cars and adequate public transportation presented logistical problems for families, especially those with young children.

Joseph Lash, who lived at the corner of 25th and Hayes Sts. appealed to Father Leonard J. Koster, pastor of St. Rita, to celebrate Mass for neighborhood Catholics in his home. Father Koster agreed and Richmond Bishop Andrew J. Brennan gave his blessing. The congregation was named a mission of St. Rita, and worshippers increased quickly from an initial 25 to more than 60, which forced a move from the Lash home to the nearby fire station. Eventually a second Mass location was added at the Mount Vernon Theater on Mt. Vernon Avenue to help satisfy the growing parish's needs. The congregation and ministries continued to grow and in 1939 the parish built a "basement church."

Our Lady of Lourdes office manager Janet Rowlands said she was told the unusual structure "was like a walk-in basement without the house."

Many parishioners were hoping for the parish to be called St. Anne. Women of the mission even formed a St. Anne Guild that worked to gain parish status plus cinch St. Anne as patroness. But Father Peter L. Ireton, apostolic administrator of the Richmond Diocese, decided to name the church Our Lady of Lourdes in honor of the Virgin Mary.

In 1946, Richmond Bishop Ireton made the tiny mission church a parish and named Father Robert F. Beattie its first pastor.

In 1954, Father Charles Comaskey succeeded Father Beattie and began planning the construction of the present church building. He topped off the basement church with another story, and parishioners worshipped there until a new structure could be completed. Construction began in 1962, and was completed in 1964.

In 2005, current pastor Father Robert E. Avella took over for Father Robert J. Rippy, who was appointed rector of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.

Father Avella and the Arlington Diocese share a common origin. In 1975, Father Avella was the first priest ordained for the new diocese and was the first priest ordained by the late Bishop Thomas J. Welsh.

He served in many parishes around the diocese, including pastor of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale, St. Mary Church in Alexandria and St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax. He also held many administrative posts for the diocese including bishop's delegate for clergy and diocesan director of vocations.

When Father Avella came to Our Lady of Lourdes, the number of churches in the area did not escape his notice. He refers, with a wry smile, to 23rd Street as, "The holiest street in Arlington."

"It's very ecumenical," he laughed.

Neighbors include Methodist and Baptist congregations within walking distance of his parish. There are other churches on surrounding streets that have been there for many years.

In the spirit of ecumenism, the parish has participated in an annual ecumenical prayer service. But ecumenism is just one of its strengths.

Father Avella said that the parish is generous with its time and money.

"Every year we exceed the Bishops Lenten Appeal. They've never, ever failed to come through," he said.

Father Paul A. Berghout, parochial vicar, said parishioners answer the call when help is needed.

"They're committed to the parish," he said.

Father Berghout likes the relative smallness of the parish.

"It's a wonderfully sized parish that people love to belong to. You can get to know most people," he said.

An active Knights of Columbus Council led by Grand Knight Joe Mazel has about 100 members. The council has a First Sunday breakfast plus occasional spaghetti dinners and Lenten soup dinners.

"We're building a sense of community," he said.

The parish pro-life committee led by Ron Artim sends parishioners to the March for Life in January plus they have a spiritual adoption program where they adopt an unborn child and give the child a baby shower.

"We pray to change the mother's heart," said Artim.

The parish supports the Mariah Center in Alexandria - a pro-life clinic. They pray a weekly pro-life rosary and support Project Rachel and the Gabriel Project with a Giving Tree during Advent.

Many early parishioners are still active and reminisce about the bygone days.

Ninety-year-old Sal Caffi moved to Arlington in 1930 and has been a parishioner for 64 years. He remembers those early years fondly.

"We got things done," he said. "Women did the planning," he laughed. "And we did the work."

He said that parishioners also chipped in to do work around the church.

"I even plowed the snow," said Caffi.

Another longtime parishioner, Ann King, who joined the parish in 1947, also remembers the early days of the church.

"We had wonderful affairs," she said. "We had square dances, potluck suppers and spaghetti dinners."

Ana Rivera, who heads the parish Spanish Apostolate, may sum up the feelings of many parishioners.

"This is our church," she said. "This is home."

Next week's profile

St. Patrick in Fredericksburg

Quick facts

Our Lady of Lourdes Parish

24th and S. Ives Sts.

Arlington, Va. 22202

703/684-9261

Pastor: Fr. Robert E. Avella

Parochial vicar: Fr. Paul A. Berghout

In- residence: Frs. Brian G. Bashista and Joseph J. Loftus (Ret.)

DRE: Marian I. Hartzell

Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 9 a.m., 5:30 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m., noon, 5 p.m. (Spanish)

Weekdays: 6:45 a.m., noon.

Parishioners: 1,945

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011