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Willing to ‘say it like it is’

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God's handiwork is expressed in the groves of trees and rolling hills surrounding the brick exterior of Catherine of Siena Parish in Great Falls, while the dexterity of human hands is evident in the icons and sculptures within. The beauty inside and outside the church calls the 3,423 parishioners to praise God, as does a parish culture that entreats each person to embrace the Catholic Faith.

"When I come to Mass, I hear what I need to hear, not always what I want to hear," said Zita Desa, mother of four and parishioner since 1999.

Parishioner Regina Sweeney, mother of seven, agrees. Father Alexander R. Drummond, pastor, "intends what the magisterium intends; we are not getting watered-down Catholicism," she said.

The St. Catherine community began in 1968 as a mission of St. Luke Parish in McLean when a family in Great Falls sought religious education for their children closer to home. A mission church was established once the family secured 110 local faithful. In 1979, St. Catherine was established as a parish, with Father Anton Justs - later installed as the first bishop of Jelgava, Latvia - as pastor. The present church was dedicated in 1981. Outdoor Stations of the Cross, a Garden for the Unborn and two gardens eventually were added to the parish property. Gregory, a 12-year-old Scottish border collie, also is a fixture of St. Catherine. While his original job was to guard the rose garden from deer, he is in remission from lymphoma and now remains primarily indoors. "We are good buddies," said Father Drummond.

Along Springvale Road approaching the parish, older homes rest on large lots. Father Drummond, who first served as parochial vicar and administrator before he was appointed pastor in 2006, said although most people think of Great Falls as wealthy - and there are pockets of mansions - many parishioners are retired and have lived in the area for 20 or 30 years, he said. "They bought the land when it was out in the boondocks" and not as expensive.

For those who are well-off, much of their income supports families of seven or more, which are common at St. Catherine, said Father Drummond. The parish is comprised primarily of retirees and families, although there are some singles who regularly attend services.

Desa said it was tempting to move somewhere less expensive, but the unique nature of the parish and its Montessori school kept her and her husband, Colin, local.

Siena Academy, for children ages 2 and a half to 12, is the only Arlington diocesan Montessori school.

Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist Janet Siepker, head of school, embraced the Montessori approach because "it is centered in the Faith and picks up the potential of each child as a child of God."

"It's also sequentially detailed; it calls forth the child's natural development," she said.

The school, adjacent to Bishop Justs Hall and the church, opened in 2004, with support from then-pastor Father Franklyn M. McAfee. Students often go on to attend the all-girls Oakcrest School in McLean or the all-boys The Heights School in Potomac, Md.

Sweeney and her husband, Owen, who helped start the school, registered at St. Catherine while living in Vienna. "The Latin Mass initially drew us in," said Sweeney.

The Sunday solemn high Mass using the Latin Novus Ordo rite includes a professional resident choir of 10 that sings Gregorian chant and traditional choral music.

Kimberly Hess, director of music at St. Catherine, is an instructor of music theory at Marymount University in Arlington and has an extensive background in music, including a master's in sacred music from the University of Notre Dame and a Doctor of Musical Arts Degree in organ performance from the University of Illinois.

She feels the professional choir adds to the devotional life of the parish. "The music is very well done and polished - it creates an atmosphere of prayer and beauty," said Hess, who also directs the youth choir. The 20 youths sing monthly at the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass.

While the 10 a.m. Mass is one of the most well-attended services, the Latin Mass is attracts "hard-core regulars," said Father Drummond.

"What I love about the Latin Mass is you get the culture, the beauty of the Faith - and you know it's universal," said Sweeney. Since Latin is the language of the Church, there's a sense of "connectedness to the whole Church, that mystical body," she said.

The Mass is "a piece of heaven," added Desa.

The connectedness Sweeney spoke of is felt at the parish level, as well. "For many, social life revolves around the parish and people linger and socialize after services," said Father Drummond.

A number of parishioners are members of Opus Dei, which sponsors monthly evenings of recollection for men and for women. An Opus Dei priest hears confessions regularly. The Knights of Columbus Padre Pio Council meets twice a month, and there is an over-50 club and an active Catholic Youth Organization, led by Anson Groves, director of religious education.

The devout community has been cultivated through liturgies, devotions and social activities, as well as St. Catherine's pastors.

Jess Goodwin, 23, the oldest of nine, has been a parishioner with his family for more than 15 years. The priests he's known at St. Catherine reach out to parishioners. They "want to know how you are doing, what's going on in your life," he said. When Goodwin, a former altar server, was home on summer break from college, Father Drummond made a point of asking how he was, he said.

And Father Drummond "says it like it is," said Goodwin, echoing Desa. "I appreciate that."

Quick facts

St. Catherine of Siena Parish

1020 Springvale Rd.

Great Falls, Va. 22066


Pastor: Fr. Alexander R. Drummond

DRE: Anson Groves

Mass Schedule:

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

Sun: 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon (solemn high Mass, Latin Novus Ordo)

Weekdays: 9 a.m.

Parishioners: 3,423

School: Siena Academy, Catholic Montessori

1020 Springvale Rd.

Great Falls, Va. 22066


Head of school: Franciscan Sr. of the Eucharist Janet Siepker

Students: 137

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010