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‘A building that calls to people’

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UPDATE: As of July 27, the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously approved the church's proposal. "We're looking forward to seeing this be built and being able to be in it," said business manager Kathy Coleman.


Ever since 1858, the St. Mary of Sorrows community in Fairfax has been growing. They outgrew the quaint, hisotric church on Fairfax Station Road. They prayed in other buildings, like Robinson Secondary School and Lord of Life Lutheran Church, before creating a new worship space in 1979. They bought property adjacent to the site in 2001, with the hope of creating a dedicated sanctuary.

In 2013, St. Mary needed more space for parish activities and meetings. Father James S. Barkett, pastor, commissioned a survey to gauge support for a new church, which would free up room in the existing building for offices and classrooms. Of those surveyed, 62 percent were supportive, 27 percent were unsure and 11 percent disapproved.

In a letter to his parishioners, Father Barkett outlined his reasons for building a large, traditional and beautiful building.

"We currently live in a society reeling from the rotten fruits of secularism and rationalism, in which (there is much) anxiety, cynicism, depression and despair, especially among our young people ... . We live in a society that is seeking a transcendent encounter with the God who loved them into existence and who has not abandoned them, but continually calls them to a deeper encounter with Him," he said.

"A church building, with an architecture inspired by Catholic theology, is intended to be a conduit for this encounter between the human and the divine."

Neighbors, parishioners, architect James McCrery, Lynne Strobel - whose law firm is representing the church - and Father Barkett gathered July 11 to discuss the logistics of the new church. After listening to the concerns of neighbors at an earlier meeting, the church scrapped plans for a bell tower and steeple. Five feet also was shaved off the structure, bringing the new height to 55 feet. The new church will be below the tree line and more trees will be planted to obscure the view from the street.

The new church and basement is expected to cost between $13.5 and $15 million. Additional money will be needed to renovate the existing building. St. Mary's current capital campaign, "Honoring Our Past, Building Our Future," aims to raise funds toward church construction.

Compared to the 870 seats in the current space, "They tell me the new church will sleep about 1,200 people," joked Father Barkett.

Many neighbors objected to aspects of the new church, including the height and overall size, the increased traffic, the architectural style and its placement within a residential area. Though Father Barkett, Strobel and McCrery tried to address the concerns, tensions were high. One parishioner lightened the mood, saying, "My wife wants to know how comfy the pews are going to be."

The Fairfax County board of zoning appeals will meet July 27 for a public hearing on the church's proposal, and possibly issue a ruling. Bob Nashed, a diocesan planning manager, speculates that after receiving approval, they will continue working on the design and begin construction on the new church in 2017 or early 2018.

Bill Seiler, a parishioner since 1977, disapproves of the new church. "We should be more concerned with filling the pews we have now rather than building new ones," he said. "No matter how grandiose a building is, you look around (at) who else is there - the people, the body of Christ."

Seiler also hopes they can decrease the church's height in order to lower electricity costs. "Morally, I feel we can't justify that increase in height … . We want to follow Pope Francis' care for creation. It's an essential of our faith."

In response, McCrery noted that for a structure of this size, having higher ceilings will keep the building proportional. He also said the church will be built with green technologies and will use light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which are more environmentally friendly.

Kevin McManus, a member of the building committee and a parishioner for the past four years, is excited for the new church. "I think it's a massive improvement over what we have," he said. "Part of our mission is to bring in new members to the faith and a building that calls to people is much more effective, (rather) than a boring, squat, modernistic warehouse," he said. "(It's) something transcendent. You feel like you're going to church when you're stepping up to the front."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016