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Fr. Avella: First Priest Ordained for the Diocese

Father Robert Avella, recently appointed pastor of St. Mary Parish in Alexandria, was the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Arlington by founding bishop Thomas J. Welsh in 1975.

Father Avella, whose priestly life is a history of the diocese, is now heading its oldest parish, which was founded in 1795. He was born May 11, 1949, in Washington, D.C., to Gennaro and Anne Avella, Father Avella’s parents moved their family to Arlington soon after.

"It’s the only home I have a conscious memory of," he said. "Our St. Charles Parish was a little mission church. Most of Northern Virginia was farmland and woods. Much of what we see now never existed when I was a child."

Father Avella attended St. Charles School, and then one year at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. He completed his secondary education at St. John Vianney School in Richmond, a minor seminary. Attending St. Mary’s Seminary and St. Mary’s University, both in Baltimore, he graduated in 1975. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 10, 1975 by Bishop Welsh, who was ordaining men for the first time.

"When I was ordained, we had 79 priests and a handful of seminarians and a great bishop. I think everyone in the diocese should be proud of what has happened in 25 years," said Father Avella. "It’s an extraordinary story, and the vitality of this diocese is inspiring. Not only were we blessed with three beautiful bishops, we have great priests, and the lay people are phenomenal."

Some of them become "incredibly involved" and infuse their experience from previous parishes, he said.

"They become excited about building new parishes and starting new programs, because all churches and synagogues in Northern Virginia are the only true communities, and so church life becomes critical and important to most people. In recent years, we’ve gone through a tremendous growth in this area, but many may not remember the one or two recessions we’ve had in our history as a diocese," he said.

There was a period of time when building stopped and many schools and parishes had financial difficulties.

"I consider one of the best innovations this diocese did was under Bishop Keating when he created the D.I.A.L. (diocesan investment and loan) program, and we started acting financially as one family, sharing all our resources among all the brother and sister parishes, with all the money, including interest, staying within the Church, so that more growth and vitality occurs," he said. "It’s a wonderful program.

"The other thing, and it’s a mysterious thing, is vocations, and I say that because I worked it for seven years and could never explain it except that God blessed us," he said. "I remember when Father Richard Ley was the first vocations director and he and I talked about the work, and we had maybe five men in theology. I know in the mid-80s that number had risen to maybe 50 men in theology and Father Gould has continued to this present day in bringing in good candidates."

As for living and working in Virginia, he said, "I am very happy I’m in the South. I regret in many ways that Northern Virginia is becoming more like any suburban area in our country. It’s losing a lot of its southern identity. The Catholic Church in the South has a certain vitality and spirit that I always enjoyed.

"In the South, the faith has always been against the wall," Father Avella said. "The persecution of the Catholic Church in the South, including Virginia, up to recent years really evoked deep faith in people. There was a cross attached to being a Catholic in the South, and that cross proved victorious.

"When people move here, they’re always from somewhere else," he said. "My guess is that over the years 90 percent of the people in Northern Virginia are here for only the time being."

The transitory population was one of two themes of a talk he gave over 1,000 times when he was traveling as vocations director. On an airplane flight, he encountered a girl named Jessica, whom he estimated to be in first grade. Traveling alone, she was being sent between her parents. He used the experience as an analogy "about the calling of this diocese was to be the Church for the present, for people who were from somewhere else, who would probably go elsewhere. We’re in between, and that’s where Christ is."

The second idea he spoke of was that "Fort Myer, with Arlington Cemetery, is at the front door of the diocese." He grew up near the military base, and he and his siblings could hear the evening taps being played. They would pray for the military, both living and dead.

"We (in the Arlington Diocese) have a special responsibility to pray for the men and women in the military, and their souls are entrusted to us, both in times of peace and war."

Noting the diversity of nationalities and cultures here, he remarked on how the Church, especially in the Arlington and the Washington Archdiocese, is aiding and settling immigrants and refugees. The first refugees Father Avella saw was as a boy in the late 50s, when Cuban exiles came to escape Castro’s revolution in Cuba.

"Our diocese jumped into it almost from the very beginning; bishops committed to help them in the transition: to provide a home here for those who have left their homeland," he said "so they fit well into that 90 percent (who have come from elsewhere)."

Of the highlights of his priesthood, Father Avella said he "enjoyed living with the bishops;" both Welsh and Keating, from 1979-84 when he was diocesan vocations director.

"One of the side blessings was that Bishop Keating loved to cook . . . he would come up with this new creation … and he insisted on doing dishes also," Avella said "We were also notorious on Sunday nights for going out to different places for pizza," the favorite food of both the bishop and the priest.

"Bishop Welsh was a great man," he said. "There is so much I gleaned from him, as a man, as a priest and as a bishop." Father Avella said Bishop Welsh was "extremely disciplined" in his physical health, comparing it to the "93 diets" he has been on during his priesthood. "He is the only man I know who doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and can eat (only) one potato chip."

The growth of the diocese, Father Avella said, is "a positive sign," even with overcrowded parishes, where at some Masses there is standing room only. "Sometimes, I believe it’s not good to be convenient in our faith (because) people see a dynamism and vitality to faith."

He cited the lack of congregants at churches in the northeastern United States, where a building that can hold 1,000 people has only eight inside, because the population centers have moved south. Large parishes, built by waves of immigrants, are part of the nation’s Church history, he said.

"Big parishes can be extremely helpful, as there are many talented lay people to draw on," he said. "Pastors must be flexible and creative in their approach."

In addition to diocesan growth, he said he sees signs of conversion of hearts, "bringing people to the faith, which is really the work of the Church, to convert the heart," he said. "Because there’s a real battle going on out there in Northern Virginia with all the different religions."

After he was ordained, Father Avella served as parochial vicar at St. Ambrose Parish in Annandale from 1975-78 and at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington from 1978-79. He was diocesan director of vocations from 1978-85 and then assistant principal and chaplain at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington from 1985-89. He was pastor of St. Leo the Great Parish in Fairfax from 1989-mid-1999.

"I can remember when I was about five or six, my father’s one hobby with us was going for rides around Northern Virginia and we came out to St. Leo’s and saw the original church, which I have now renovated into a parish hall. It will be completed after I leave here," he said. "So the first church I saw after St. Charles is the building I’ve renovated at St. Leo’s. This (St. Leo’s Parish) is the first place I’ve planted roots since I left home at 14 (to attend minor seminary high school). I’ve been here 10 years and am now leaving. This is the most difficult time I’ve ever had in my priesthood, because I think I’m leaving home. This is family to me.

"The most wonderful thing I found as a priest," he said, was to be in a confessional, to hear penitents concerns and hopes and provide encouragement.

Father Avella said he aspires "to become a good priest," as he believes he has only just begun. "I have really admired and been edified by the priests in this diocese from my first days," he said. "Almost half of them now are gone to God."  

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1999