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‘A place where you can see Jesus’

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A young parish, St. Raymond of Peñafort was founded in 1997 by the late Arlington Bishop John R. Keating and named after the patron saint of canon lawyers. The parish's founding pastor was Father Salvator Cuillo.

In the years before the church was built, parishioners worshipped in various places around the county - Christ Methodist Church in Fairfax Station, West Springfield High School and finally, the Springfield Fire Hall on Backlick Road, remembered fondly as "holy fire hall." Those years spent moving around - setting up chairs and taking them down - bonded parishioners, who had to learn to work together to keep things going.

"People talk about the 'holy fire hall' to this day," said Father John C. De Celles, pastor of St. Raymond since 2010. "There was a real sense of community because they had to set up and tear down all those things every week. There was a real sense of bonding that still exists in the parish today."

The church was completed in 2006 after three years of construction. Overlooking Fairfax County Parkway, it is built in a traditional style with high ceilings, shrines, stained-glass windows and a bell tower - complete with a bronze bell weighing nearly 3,000 pounds. Much of the intricate art was taken from a now-closed church in Pennsylvania and dates back more than a century. The result is a church that is brand new, with an old soul and a deep sense of tradition.

(Click here to read about the church's dedication.)

Many parishioners believe the beautiful atmosphere encourages a deeper devotion and prayer life. That spiritual life is further boosted thanks to the availability of the sacraments, including Mass and confession several times a day and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament twice a week.

"With all the respect for the Eucharist and the silence and beauty that is in the sanctuary, it's really a place where you can see Jesus," said Bob Ward, a longtime parishioner who, together with his wife, Beverly, teaches the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and leads Bible studies.

(Click here to read more about the Wards.)

The parish has grown tremendously in the past few years - more than tripling in size, according to Father De Celles. With the increased population has come a new dedication to maintain the friendly, small-church atmosphere.

To keep people involved, the parish offers a vast number of ministries and organizations, including Bible studies, a Knights of Columbus council, a women's group, a pro-life ministry, parish choirs, a home-schooling group and committees offering social outreach inside the parish community and out.

For young people, the parish offers an active youth group with a full-time director, Christian Smith. The parish also has a large religious education program for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. With more than 700 children enrolled, classes meet several times a week.

Parishioners gather throughout the year for special events, including a spaghetti dinner in the fall, an Epiphany party after Christmas and an annual Oktoberfest event.

"It's a very lively parish, a very devout parish with a lot of traditional devotions, but also very welcoming," Father De Celles said. "People are very warm and there's an eagerness to grow with the church."

For Father De Celles, the most important aspect of parish life is the liturgy. His goal as pastor is to keep the focus entirely on the Lord and to bring his parishioners to Christ.

"People take the liturgy seriously here," he said. "It is a very devout parish and very focused on the Lord, so I'm very pleased with that."

One way he tries to keep a strong sense of devotion is by incorporating catechesis as much as possible - through his homilies, a weekly column in the bulletin, special programs and guest speakers.

"Adult education is very important to me," he said. "It's something we're going to be doing more and more of."

(Read how St. Raymond, along with other local parishes, prepared parishioners for the recent liturgical changes here.)

That mission is certainly appreciated by parishioners, including Ward.

"We are enriched at every Mass by the homilies of all the priests," he said. "None of them are afraid to teach the hard teachings of Jesus. They give you the absolute truth as taught by Christ and sustained by Him."

Another parishioner, Liz Hildebrand, said it was that catechetical spirit that attracted her to the parish. A member of a military family, she and her husband decided to move into the boundaries of St. Raymond five years ago, after reading a few of the church bulletins online, including then-pastor Father James R. Gould's columns.

"I just felt like it was speaking to us," Hilderbrand said.

Today, Hildebrand is an active member of the parish's home-schooling group and pro-life ministry. She also spends time working with the ladies group and the parish library.

"The parish is doing what God is calling us to do," she said. "We're moving together as a community, welcoming people and living out the word of God. I just feel very much at home and I love the pro-life work and I love that the truth is available to my family and my kids. This is a good parish getting better because we constantly strive to do the work of God."

Parish secretary Paul De Rosa also is highly involved with the parish life. A parishioner since the beginning, he is an usher and deputy grand knight for the Knights of Columbus. He also helps take care of parish grounds.

He believes the parish is special because of the faith and dedication of his fellow parishioners, but especially because of the hard work of the priests who have served over the years.

"The bottom line here is we're blessed to have such a wonderful church and priests that do everything in their power to keep us going on the straight and narrow and keep us from all the influences and distractions there are in the world," he said. "We are blessed to have the priests we have to guide us."

Quick Facts
St. Raymond of Peñafort Church
8750 Pohick Rd.
Springfield, Va. 22153

Pastor: Fr. John C. De Celles
Parochial vicar: Fr. Mark A. Pilon
In residence: Fr. John Lovell,
Fr. Toby Thomas, M.C.B.S
DRE: Maria Ammirati

Mass Schedule:
Sat.: 9 a.m.; 5 p.m., 7 p.m. vigil
Sun.: 7 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m., 5 p.m.
Weekdays: 6:30 a.m., 9 a.m.
Wednesdays: 7 p.m.
First and third Fridays: 7 p.m. (extraordinary form of the Roman rite)
Parishioners: 7,300

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012