A friend to her diocese

First slide
First slide
Previous Next

Shortly after her husband was drafted into the military, Stella Garcia helped pack up their little family and move to Northern Virginia. They arrived from Texas Sept. 18, 1950, a day she still remembers well. Over the next 66 years, Garcia and her family made their home in the soon-to-be created Arlington Diocese.

Garcia is a longtime parishioner of what became the Cathedral of St. Thomas More, helping it become a church when it was just a basement. She volunteered at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington before it even opened its doors. She has worked for 20 years and counting as the extended day bookkeeper at St. Ann School, also in Arlington.

She passed on the faith to her seven children - Fred Jr., Nelda, Richard, Rosa, Michael, Carmela and Virginia - most of whom still live in and attend parishes in the diocese, including St. John Neumann Church in Reston, St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax and All Saints Church in Manassas.

In addition to working in Catholic education herself, her daughter Nelda Thomas is vice principal of St. Thomas More Cathedral School. Her daughter-in-law Valerie Garcia is principal at Blessed Sacrament School in Alexandria. Her life story is brimming with examples of using her talents to support the local church.

Garcia's story began in Laredo, Texas, where she was born June 6, 1926. She still remembers riding horses by the Rio Grande as a child. "You never had such beautiful river banks," she said as she sat in her son Michael Garcia's State Farm office, sporting a lilac skirt suit. Her father was a teacher and her mother was a successful businesswoman, who mentored Garcia's future husband, Fred.

Just 10 days before she was to be married, Garcia's mother fell ill with angina. She died just a few days later, with Garcia at her side. Out of respect for her mother, they postponed the wedding for two months and held only a small civil ceremony in her family home. Years later, the couple was married in the church at St. Thomas More by Father Adolph A. Snella.

The first time they went to Mass at St. Thomas More, Garcia's husband was recovering from foot surgery, so she and the children went alone. Msgr. Arthur J. Taylor, pastor, had buses pick up the parishioners for Sunday Mass, said Garcia.

"The bus dropped us off and all you could see was the convent," she said. "One nice lady said, 'Excuse me, can I help you?' and I said, 'Where's the church?' " The woman directed the family down the steps to the basement.

Soon, her children were attending St. Thomas More School. "In 1954 there were 1,300 students and 18 IHM (Sisters, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) nuns. Mother Mary Ivo was the principal - she was adorable. … Where my daughter (Nelda) has her office (now), that's where Mother Mary Ivo's office was." The school also had "the best cafeteria in the world," she said.

Garcia was involved with many ministries in their parish, like the Blessed Mary Virgin Sodality and assisting with the adult library. In the mid-1960s, she served as treasurer for the Arlington deanery. She and her husband also worked at St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. Today, Garcia still changes out the candles in the cathedral, often bringing along her granddaughter to help.

Garcia and her husband were two of the original donors for the cathedral building, and their names are memorialized on a plaque in the church. When she and her husband were looking over the list of items one could donate toward, her husband decided to designate the money for a set of doors. "Honey, the front door will never get changed," he told her.

When St. Thomas More became the cathedral of the diocese in 1974, with it came the yearly Chrism Mass, which the Garcias began to faithfully attend, in part to see all the diocesan priests. In her years at the parish, she has befriended many of them and all three of the bishops, she said.

Her son Fred said, "Mom recognizes that even though you wear a robe or an alb, you're still human. She endears herself to a lot of the priests."

When the diocese started O'Connell, Mother Mary Ivo was chosen as principal and asked Garcia to set up the school library. Thomas said, "She brought home cases of books and would be in the kitchen with the electric labeler, writing down the Dewey Decimal System."

Eventually, all the Garcia children attended O'Connell. "I used to love going into the library," said Thomas. "Even when my boys were in O'Connell, I would be trying to find any of the books that were still there from 1960."

Bowling was a favorite hobby, and for years Garcia would go every Wednesday night to the bowling alley with a league from St. Thomas More. "(At first) I didn't know what bowling was, but I went over and I liked it," she said. "My husband said to the children, 'Wednesday is her day off. I'd rather she hit the pins than hit you,' " she joked. Her 16 trophies are displayed in her basement.

In 1995, her husband died and the next year she took the job at St. Ann School, where Thomas was teaching. "She knows where every child is supposed to be in the extracurricular activities," and tells me all about it, said Thomas proudly.

Besides the St. Ann students, Garcia enjoys spending time with her 20 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They'll all come together to celebrate her 90th birthday. "She's a treasure," said her son, Fred.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016