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Holy Family Church in Dale City marks 50 years as a multicultural parish

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Even before Holy Family Church in Dale City had a name or a building of its own, the parish’s focus was on “serving people and helping people,” said Larry Pemberton, a longtime church volunteer and member of the pastoral council.

“It’s a very humble place, but it’s a joyful place. It is the spiritual home of the people who belong there and worship there.” — Fr. Jack O’Hara, former parochial vicar of Holy Family Church

Initially known as just the “Dale City Parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond,” Holy Family was established by Richmond Bishop John J. Russell, who heard there was a diverse and growing community of Catholics in Prince William County and appointed Father R. Roy Cosby to build a new church.

After almost four years of fundraising, planning and construction, the Holy Family Church was dedicated June 2, 1974. Two months later, in August, it became one of the first of 49 parishes in the newly created Arlington diocese. (There are 70 parishes in the diocese today.)

The focus on service was evident from the first public meetings of the new community. In early September, 1970, the newly appointed pastor said he saw the nascent parish not as a church, but as people — “Christ’s hands to help those in need, his lips to spread the Word of God,” according to an article in the “Potomac News” reporting on a community meeting at Bel Air Elementary School. The first Masses Father Cosby celebrated at the school Sept. 6 drew 1,200 people, the article said.

“The desire to help people is a part of Holy Family,” said Pemberton, who’s been active in the parish since 1985. “It’s carried through with all of the pastors we’ve had,” and instilled a strong spirit of volunteerism, from the church’s volunteer-run food pantry to youth mentorship programs, to a Circle of Caring ministry, which supports the seriously ill and their caregivers.

As the parish marks its 50th anniversary this month with muted celebrations due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, parishioners have been reminiscing and sorting photos for a video to be shown after a livestreamed Mass Bishop Michael F. Burbidge will celebrate at Holy Family Sept. 20 at 12:30 p.m. Father Donald Planty, pastor from 2005 to 2010, will be guest homilist, and many priests who have served the parish over the years plan to attend.

“It is a time of jubilee and rejoicing! Although the pandemic has curtailed many events, we are not discouraged!” wrote Father Ramon Baez, named pastor this summer, in a letter last week on the parish website. He said the anniversary celebration will begin with a fireworks display Sept. 19 at 8:15 p.m. in the church parking lot.

Over the years, the parish thrived and grew; an activity center was added in 1990 and now houses the preschool, which opened in 1992, and Holy Family School, established in 1995.

Father John T. O’Hara, who served as parochial vicar for 10 years, noted that the church’s modern brick building is not ornate, but is beloved by many. “It’s a very humble place, but it’s a joyful place. It is the spiritual home of the people who belong there and worship there,” he said.

The church community of about 3,300 families — 15,000 parishioners — has grown increasingly diverse in the past 20 or 30 years, said Pemberton. The area has seen a large influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants, but there are also many “African Americans, Anglo Americans, Africans, Asians, Koreans, Filipinos and every country,” he said. “We all get along with each other in the sandbox.”

One of the parish’s biggest annual events celebrates that diversity, with a multicultural festival every September, now simply called the Festival or Fun Festival. On hold this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, the event typically features ethnic foods, singing and dancing from many cultures, as well as games for the children of the parish. It’s such a big and joyful event that many former parishioners make the pilgrimage back to Holy Family to participate, said Jamie Chichester, a 27-year member who grew up in the parish and attended Holy Family School. “It’s a special occasion that I always came home to attend,” during her college years, she said.

Father O’Hara said he and Father Gerry Creedon, who both arrived at Holy Family in 2010, “delighted in the diversity” of the parish, because their priestly lives “were a lot about peace and justice, so that was a great joy.”

Father Creedon was pastor from 2010 until his death in November 2017 from complications following heart surgery. An Irish priest known as a voice for social justice, Father Creedon was an inspiration and mentor to many, and also was an accomplished poet and musician. Father Bill Korpi became pastor to the grieving parish in 2017, “as all of us absorbed the shock of (Father Creedon’s) death,” Father O’Hara said. Both he and Father Korpi retired this summer.

Those associated with Holy Family over the years look back with satisfaction in being part of the parish’s good works.

“It was a great place to be,” said Father O’Hara. “It is a place of hope, joy, service and acceptance — a beautiful, holy family.” 

Find out more

Bishop Michael F. Burbidge will celebrate a Mass honoring the parish’s 50th anniversary livestreamed from Holy Family Church in Dale City, Sept. 20, at 12:30 p.m. To watch via livestream, go to youtube.com/holyfamilymass.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020