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‘A great name for a parish’

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Nestled near the often-gridlocked intersection of three major Alexandria arteries — King Street, Quaker Lane and Braddock Road — Blessed Sacrament Church is a peaceful respite for spiritual renewal and fortification for countless Catholics. As they reflect on its establishment 75 years ago, longtime parishioners say don’t let its tranquil interior fool you: parish life here abounds with a bustling array of vibrant ministries and ways to get involved.

That legacy dates back to its earliest days, said Msgr. John C. Cregan, who served as pastor for 19 years. He returned to give the homily at a Mass Dec. 19 celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge to mark the parish’s jubilee year on the fourth Sunday of Advent. 

“You are the living Blessed Sacrament. You are the good and faithful people who come each day, who come each week, who support us, (and) pray together to receive the holy sacraments. So we thank you for all that you do to make our parish the wonderful place it is.” Father John D. Kelly, pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church

When the first church was built, its basement was converted into a homeless shelter, which accommodated as many as 60 people on cold, winter nights, and eventually paved the way for the establishment of Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria.

“That became so much of a part of this parish: reaching out in so many ways to help other people in need. To be aware of what’s going on and to be involved in social justice issues,” said Msgr. Cregan. “In the heart of this parish from the beginning was a desire to share the blessings that they had received with many other people.”

For 10 years during its early history, Blessed Sacrament adopted a parish in West Virginia. After that parish became self-sufficient, the church’s leaders struck a new partnership with a parish in Honduras. As parishioners returned from visiting their Central American friends, Msgr. Cregan said many wondered who benefited most from the exchange. “So many lives were touched and we were enriched by that relationship.”

“It has always been an extremely active parish,” said Ginger Harrington, who joined the parish as a toddler when her parents helped establish it in 1946. 

Blessed Sacrament’s zeal for outreach and engagement, she said, was fueled in part by the Sisters of the Holy Cross, the school’s first faculty members. Sister M. Laurentia Boyle started a social group that drew people in as well as a visiting committee that ministered to the homebound. 

“That same spirit has always existed,” Harrington said. “I hope it never goes away.”

Longtime parishioner Pat McArtor agreed that Blessed Sacrament is very active in the community. For 60 years, she volunteered to work the polling place the church hosted every election. Reflecting on the 75th anniversary, she recalled her sister’s wedding and other family milestones. “I can still see my parents at the midnight Mass.”

Father John D. Kelly, pastor since 2015, said the jubilee was “a great blessing for our parish,” which has grown and prospered. He noted that parishioners support many ministries and a wide range of charities, including efforts to address food insecurity, such as Catholic Charities’ St. Lucy Food Project, ALIVE! and the Mother of Light Center. Blessed Sacrament School has achieved national recognition. At Sunday’s Mass, he thanked Bishop Burbidge, Msgr. Cregan and the parishioners.

“You are the living Blessed Sacrament. You are the good and faithful people who come each day, who come each week, who support us, (and) pray together to receive the holy sacraments. So, we thank you for all that you do to make our parish the wonderful place it is.”

Parishioners say the feeling is mutual. Father Kelly “is very approachable, like the monsignor,” said Kevin Harr, a member of the Knights of Columbus.

The parish’s history started during World War II, which drew many people to the Washington area, either in military service or as part of the federal civilian workforce. The federal government subsidized construction of the North and South Fairlington and Park Fairfax housing developments. Of the thousands of families that relocated here, hundreds were Catholic. That prompted Richmond Bishop Peter L. Ireton to take steps that culminated in the Jan. 20, 1946, installation of Fr. Martin T. Quinn as Blessed Sacrament’s first pastor.

For a time, the parish gathered for Mass at the since-demolished Centre Theater on Quaker Lane. While they came to worship, sometimes they lingered for entertainment and the air conditioning, especially during summer months. 

“We’d go to the noon Mass,” Harrington said. “After that they would take the altar down and we would stay for a movie, maybe even a double feature.”

“What a great name for a parish,” Msgr. Cregan said in his homily. He recalled cases he witnessed of the Blessed Sacrament sustaining individuals through severe illnesses, inspiring the young in their faith and leading lapsed Catholics back to rediscover theirs. “To see the hope in people’s eyes, when you bring them the Eucharist,” he remarked.

He shared the words of St. John Paul II at the conclusion of the World Youth Day in 2000, which was attended by millions, including the Blessed Sacrament youth group: Love the Eucharist. Cherish the Eucharist. Center your life on the Eucharist. 

“And so here we find out more and more clearly that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches,” Msgr. Cregan said. “Without him, we can do nothing. But with him, great things will continue to happen for this parish, for our church and for our country.”

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021