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Reston’s first Catholic church celebrates 50 years serving wider community

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When you step inside St. Thomas à Becket Church in Reston, it’s almost like being in a large round treehouse, surrounded by natural wood and leafy green views. Skylights and latticework create a constant interplay of light and shadow across the altar and the pews, and large windows offer views of tall trees and vibrant hydrangeas in different shades of pink and purple.

The church’s ambiance reflects its unique history: When Reston was created in 1964, it was one of the nation’s first innovative “planned communities,” with abundant parks and green spaces, as well as altruistic values that included a commitment to diversity and community involvement.

Many young Catholic families were attracted to the new town and “wanted to bring a vibrant presence of our Catholic faith to this burgeoning community,” said Msgr. Roger McGrath, who in the late 1960s was a seminarian at The Catholic University of America in Washington. His cousin, Harriet Hanlon, had recently moved with her family to Reston, and asked for his help getting permission for Catholic Masses to be offered there.

Msgr. McGrath, recently retired in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., returned for the parish’s 50th anniversary Mass June 27 to share his memories of its beginnings. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge was the main celebrant and Msgr. McGrath gave the homily. Father William B. Schardt, pastor, welcomed parishioners to the belated celebration, which had been postponed twice because of the coronavirus.

Several early parish members were present for the anniversary Mass, including Hanlon, Msgr. McGrath’s cousin. Her late husband, Bob, was the first Reston Catholic Community board president and both were active in the community and the new parish. After the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, “We went from ‘laypeople could do nothing’ to doing everything,” she said.

“We jumped in with both feet,” agreed Sally Guilfoyle, who’s lived in Reston for 52 years and was another early member. “It was the most wonderful thing that ever happened.”

In the early days, “we taught CCD in our homes,” added parishioner Kathleen Driscoll.

“We wanted to have a Catholic presence in the new town, and we had a very active group of laypeople,” said Marcia Stowers, another original member. “Everybody was new in Reston, and we had a lot of idealists,” she said. “Faith means running the soup kitchen.”

After getting permission in 1968 to become a “sub-parish” of St. Joseph Church in Herndon, the Reston Catholic Community began meeting in local schools and cafeterias for Masses, when Northern Virginia was still part of the Richmond diocese. In 1969, Richmond Bishop John J. Russell visited and agreed to allow baptisms and confessions in Reston, as well as Masses, according to a parish history.

St. Thomas was established officially as a parish in September 1970 and was one of six religious congregations that founded the Interfaith Housing Corporation, which worked for affordable housing and other community needs. Later known as Reston Interfaith, it has grown into an active community nonprofit now called Cornerstones, which runs Reston’s homeless shelter and provides food and other services for those struggling to make ends meet. From the beginning, the parish was inspired to “not just take care of ourselves but to take care of the community,” Msgr. McGrath said.

Ground was broken in June 1972 for the church building — originally one large multipurpose room with movable chairs and a movable altar, so it could be used by other community groups, including the Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation next door. The building was dedicated in September 1973.

In 1974, the parish was incorporated into the newly established Arlington diocese and by 1983, the area had grown so much that the parish realized the one-room space was no longer enough for its needs. But fundraising efforts did not begin until the fall of 1991.

The parish broke ground for a new parish center in September 1998, and the addition was dedicated in September 2002. It holds a large social hall, as well as religious education classrooms, a choir room, office space and meeting rooms. After the addition was completed, the focus shifted to the original church, with the installation of a permanent altar and pews, among other updates.

While many current parishioners have been around for decades, the church may soon be seeing an influx of new faces, as Reston prepares for another wave of growth driven by the expansion of Metro’s Silver Line, bringing new business and housing along the Dulles corridor.

“Growth is coming, but what it’s going to look like, I don’t know,” Father Schardt said.

Michael and Joan Kelly have been members for 46 years, and value the parish’s commitment to “reaching out to people and helping. It’s been a wonderful place to be, friendly and welcoming. We both loved it the moment we got here,” Michael said.

Nina Zinicola Smith has been a regular parishioner since she was 14. Her dad, Sil Zinicola, walked in one Sunday after moving to Reston from Massachusetts and found the parish so welcoming that his family knew they’d found a new church home. Nina, her husband Nathan, and their two teens now live in Ashburn, but still attend St. Thomas, where her mom’s funeral was held earlier this month. When Nina walks into the church, she can still picture the blue carpet and metal chairs from the old multipurpose room. To her eyes, the permanent pews “seem very fancy,” she said. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021