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Holy See names St. Mary in Alexandria a basilica

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This story has been updated.

The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship declared St. Mary Church in Alexandria a minor basilica, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge announced to parishioners during Mass Jan. 14. 

“It is an extraordinary honor to announce that the Holy See has designated St. Mary’s in Old Town to be the newest basilica in the United States. This historic announcement recognizes the important role St. Mary’s has played in the Diocese, the City of Alexandria and even the very founding of our country,” he said. “I congratulate Father Hathaway and all of the priests who have served this parish over the generations for their work in bringing St. Mary’s to this special day. I pray that Our Lord continues to bless St. Mary’s and its community for generations to come!” 

“Today, we are overjoyed and humbled by the recognition of St. Mary as one of the major churches in the world dedicated to Christ,” said Father Edward C. Hathaway, pastor. “Thank you so much, Bishop Burbidge, for being here with us today, and for the encouragement and enthusiasm you have shown during the many months that led to this announcement.”

To be named a basilica, a church must have architectural or historic value and meet liturgical requirements, such as an adequate amount of space in the sanctuary and a fitting number of priests. There are only four major basilicas, all in Rome — St. Peter, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major. 

There are thousands of minor basilicas throughout the world, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore and the Basilica of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Norfolk. 

A committee from St. Mary began to research the application process for becoming a basilica last January, according to Father Hathaway. Bishop Burbidge approved the application in June, and sent it to the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops’ Office of Congregation for Divine Worship. They approved the plan in July, and sent it to the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments. 

“The naming of St. Mary as a minor basilica brings honor to the entire diocese and to Roman Catholics throughout the country,” said Father Hathaway. “As the first Catholic parish in Virginia and West Virginia, learning its history is to gain a greater insight into the spread of the Catholic faith in the former English colonies and throughout our nation.”

In 1788, an Irish aide-de-camp of George Washington, Col. John Fitzgerald, held a fundraiser in his home for the construction of a Catholic church. Washington was the first to donate. In 1795, St. Mary was established as a mission of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown. Eventually, a church was built on South Royal Street, where the contemporary church stands, and was dedicated by Jesuit Father Francis Ignatius Neale in 1827. 

Throughout the years, the church has undergone several repairs and renovations. Ministry buildings and offices such as the Lyceum as well as the cemetery are scattered around Old Town. The parish school, one of the largest in the diocese with around 700 students, was established in 1869 after a wave of poor Irish immigrants arrived in the area. Today, St. Mary has 7,100 registered parishioners and dozens of liturgical, fellowship and service ministries. 

In the near future, the church will be marked with special signage indicating its new status. As with all basilicas, St. Mary will install an ombrellino, a silk canopy designed with stripes of yellow and red — the traditional papal colors — and a tintinnabulum, a bell mounted on a pole and carried during some processions.

“Crossed keys, which are the symbol of the papacy, will be placed prominently on the church exterior,” said Father Hathaway. 

St. Mary also has designed a seal, which all basilicas have. The symbols within the seal pay homage to the diocese, the Jesuits who founded the parish and to Our Lady. In the bottom right quadrant of the shield is a ship, representing Alexandria’s role as an important port town in colonial times. The vessel further represents the frigates that brought Catholic immigrants to the New World. 

“The Ark and The Dove were the two famous ships, chartered by Cecil Calvert to transport 140 colonists to the shores of Maryland,” according to a statement from St. Mary. “Similar ships brought the Jesuit founders, as well as many Irish and Scottish merchants, to the port City of Alexandria.”

The seal is one of the many ways the new basilica will aim to share its past with visitors. 

“We will be looking for ways to communicate our significant history and contribution to Catholicism in the commonwealth and beyond through printed guides and other means,” said Father Hathaway. 

The parishioners at the Jan. 14 Mass applauded the announcement. Sam Lukawski, a fifth-grader at St. Mary School, was one of the 11 altar servers at the Mass. “I was glad that it became a minor basilica and that it’ll be (St. Mary Basilica) instead of St. Mary Church,” he said.

Pat Troy, a longtime parishioner, sent his children to the school and used to host Theology on Tap in his Alexandria bar. He loves the parish for its commitment to Our Lady, its priests and the fact that it was founded in part by an Irishman. “This was the first time (we) walked down the steps of this historic church as St. Mary Basilica,” he said with reverence.

Jonathan Fililpowski and Nicole Hendershot are getting married at St. Mary in April. “We’re excited to be able to get married at a basilica. It's a beautiful space to come and be able to worship, tied to the roots of our nation,” she said.

Deborah and Glenn Cooper were thrilled by the announcement. “I'm so honored to be part of this historic occasion. It makes me want to go back and probe more into the history of the church and also into the whole meaning of being a basilica,” she said. 

Parish Timeline

1781: In thanksgiving for victory at the Battle of Yorktown, a Catholic priest serving the Comte de Rochambeau offered the first Roman Catholic Mass in the City of Alexandria. The prohibition against Catholic worship was lifted for this occasion.

1785: Thomas Jefferson issued the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, allowing Catholics to worship openly in the Commonwealth of Virginia, which at the time included the area that later became West Virginia.

1788: Col. John Fitzgerald, former Aide-de-Camp to General George Washington, held a dinner in his home on St. Patrick’s Day to raise funds for the construction of a Catholic church. George Washington made the first contribution to the undertaking, equivalent to approximately $1,200.

1795: Jesuit Father Francis Ignatius Neale founded St. Mary Church, a mission of Holy Trinity Church of Georgetown, which was established in 1787. The cornerstone was laid on land that later became St. Mary’s Cemetery. Bishop John Carroll, S.J., first bishop of Baltimore, visited the new church during its construction. However, the building of the church is never completed.

1810: Father Joseph W. Fairclough, a missionary from England, became pastor and arranged for the purchase of the Chapel Alley Meeting House from the Methodist Congregation on South Royal Street, the spot where the church stands today. 

1827: The church was dedicated by Father Neale March 4, with Father Fairclough in attendance.  

1894: During the pastorate of Father Henry J. Cutler the church is rebuilt with a new 135-foot belfry and increased seating capacity, resulting in the church structure as it is known today.

1929: Under the pastorate of Father William A. McKeefry, the church is damaged in the “great fire of 1929” that primarily destroyed the ceiling. Father McKeefry died not long after the fire while actively engaged in the restoration of the church.

1974: Bishop Thomas J. Welsh became the first bishop of the Diocese of Arlington Aug. 13. Although St. Mary Church was the “eldest daughter” of the new diocese, the limited size and lack of available parking prevented selection of the church as the cathedral.

2011: Due to the July earthquake in Louisa County, Va., bricks falling from the parapet above the sanctuary severely damaging the skylight and shattering the right arm of the corpus on the crucifix. Extensive restorations to the crucifix, the skylight and the stained-glass windows throughout the church were made over the course of the year.

2018: St. Mary becomes a minor basilica. 

—    Source: St. Mary website 

Find out more

Go to stmaryoldtown.org

Learn about the basilica seal

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018