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PARISH PROFILE: ALEXANDRIA BLESSED SACRAMENT
‘One in the Lord of all’
United by faith, joyful parish thrives on service
Mothers cradled infants, youths peered over missals and an elderly man rested on a cane as they sang “One Bread, One Body” during Communion at a recent school Mass at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Alexandria. “Many the gifts, many the works, one in the Lord of all,” rang their voices.
The Massgoers rejoiced through music in the sacrament for which the parish is named. The Eucharist — Christ’s gift of sacrifice and love — is an apt image for the school and parish, where people are “incredibly generous, selfless and loving,” said Valerie Garcia, principal for the last 11 years.
“It is very inclusive,” said Stephanie Hurd, mother of three and a parishioner since 1974. “Whatever your talents, your age, you find something to share with others,” she said.
And from opening its doors to the Alexandria poor to students raising funds for Haitian earthquake victims, parishioners are full of enthusiasm to give to those in need. The parish “has a reputation for service,” said Father John C. Cregan, pastor since 1996.
Blessed Sacrament was established as a mission of St. Mary Parish in Alexandria in 1944 to offer a spiritual home to the burgeoning number of Catholics who moved into the Washington, D.C., metro region for federal and military jobs during World War II. Mass was celebrated at an elementary school and movie theater before the first church building was erected in 1946, the year Blessed Sacrament was established as a parish. Father Martin T. Quinn was founding pastor.
Once the first church building was paid off in the late ’70s and the parish achieved financially stability, the faithful entered into a sister-parish relationship with St. Elizabeth Church in West Virginia, located in a poor rural area with high unemployment.
After 10 years, St. Elizabeth had become viable, and Blessed Sacrament moved into a sister-parish relationship with San Marcos, in Gracias, Honduras. While collections help support San Marcos, the bond between the faith communities is solidified through individual relationships. “We visit them; they visit us,” said Father Cregan.
A focus on the individual is nurtured by Father Cregan, according to Ray McKenna, a Knight of Columbus and parishioner for more than 10 years. “He has great respect for the person,” said McKenna.
“Community is strengthened by the energetic involvement of a great leader, Father Cregan,” echoed Garcia. “It starts at the top. He sets an example: Every person is a priority. He is present to everyone.”
Youth Apostle Chris Hitzelberger, coordinator of youth ministry and a math teacher at the school, said Father Cregan is “dedicated to people in big ways — supporting big events — and in small ways — willingly giving a homeless man $20.”
An impetus to serve on a large and small scale has helped define Blessed Sacrament throughout its history. In 1969, the parish helped form ALIVE (Alexandrians Involved Ecumenically), a nonprofit that now includes more than 40 religious congregations that address the short- and long-term needs of thousands of Alexandrians annually. Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, which works to end homelessness through services, education and advocacy, unofficially began in 1982 in the church basement, housing up to 75 men a night, according to Father Cregan. The city of Alexandria, with the parish’s leadership and support, opened the current shelter in 1988.
According to a booklet compiled for Blessed Sacrament’s 50th anniversary, the community has consistently engaged in social issues. In 1963, dozens of parishioners housed participants of the civil rights March on Washington, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Parish boundaries primarily include middle- and upper-middle class families, said Father Cregan, yet in the current economic climate “an increasing number of families” at the parish “need assistance with food, electricity and rent.” Nevertheless, parishioners continue to “think of the less fortunate,” he said. The Legion of Mary, Knights of Columbus, a mothers’ group and Blessed Sacrament 39+ Singles Ministry, among other groups, support one another and those beyond the parish through prayer and charity.
Blessed Sacrament School, founded three years after the parish and initially staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, similarly celebrates and nurtures generosity.
“The mission of the school, along with the parish, is to serve Christ and one another,” said Garcia. Because of this focus at the school, “service becomes a natural part of (students’) lives,” she said. “It starts at a young age, and then when they go out to high school it stays with them.”
The students’ response to the earthquake in Haiti last year demonstrates how effective the school’s mission is. “In the morning of the quake, kids came up to me and said, ‘We need to do something; we want to take action,’” said Garcia.
While the school was forced to close in 1972 due to declining enrollment, a preschool was started in 1974, and in 1982 the school reopened with kindergarten through third grade, gradually adding additional grades. Now the school, with 349 students, is “flourishing,” said Father Cregan. The Sisters of the Holy Cross left the school in 1997, but Father Cregan tries to have a priest in each classroom at least once a week — either himself, or Fathers Terry A. Cramer and Anthony J. Killian, parochial vicars. “The kids are growing up in a difficult world,” said Father Cregan. “We have to plant seeds of faith in their precious hearts.”
The parish has a legacy of similarly involved pastors, including Father Anton Justs, who was appointed bishop of Jelgava, Latvia, in 1996.
Hitzelberger described how parish high schoolers, like the elementary students who wanted to assist Haitians, take initiative to fill perceived needs. Earlier this year, three senior girls organized monthly eucharistic adoration at the church.
Adoration and Mass in the current church, dedicated in September 1988, are enriched by the meditative architecture modeled after medieval monastic communities. A crucifix, tabernacle, Holy Family statue and Stations of the Cross, made by Italian artist Edmond Rabanser, later were added to enhance the worship space.
While the church interior has a peaceful, reverent atmosphere, liturgies are not somber. “People don’t mind if a child cries a bit during Mass,” said longtime parishioner Mia Stephens, a mother of two young children. “The parish welcomes the young and old,” she said. “It embraces every stage of life. All ages cross over.”
Foremost, said Father Cregan, Blessed Sacrament is “full of generous, joyful people.” In their efforts to live out the sacrificial love of Christ, parishioners readily share their many gifts and works with those in and outside parish walls, “one in the Lord of all.”
Blessed Sacrament Parish
1427 W. Braddock Rd.
Alexandria, Va. 22302
Pastor: Fr. John C. Cregan
Parochial vicars: Frs. Terry A. Cramer and Anthony J. Killian
In residence: Msgr. Frank E. Mahler (Ret.)
DRE: Susan Doyle
Sat.: 8:30 a.m., 5 p.m. vigil
Sun.: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 2 p.m. (Spanish), 5 p.m.
Weekdays: 6:30 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 7 p.m. (Wed. only)
Blessed Sacrament School
1417 W. Braddock Rd.
Alexandria, Va. 22302
Principal: Valerie Garcia