‘A hidden gem’

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Blink and you'll miss it.

Sitting on the corner of West Glebe and Russell Roads in Alexandria, the unassuming gothic-style church of St. Rita is, as Father Daniel N. Gee, pastor, recently called it "a hidden gem" in Alexandria - a beautiful, peaceful oasis inside the beltway filled with "happy people who love their faith."

Neither inner-city urban or minivan suburban, St. Rita is a neighborhood parish, within walking distance to restaurants and shops just north of the constantly developing Del Ray neighborhood.

This "physical cohesiveness helps build a sense of unity," said Dan McClafferty, parishioner since 1976. And unity, with fellow Catholics and with Christ, is a defining characteristic of both the crowd of longtime parishioners and the group of relative newcomers.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Deacon Steve Dixon and his wife, Thana, who have been St. Rita parishioners for 60 years. Both graduated from the neighboring St. Rita School and received all their sacraments, including marriage, there.

Dixon said St. Rita is a "conservative, traditional Catholic community" where the people are strong in their faith and feed off of one another.

"Everything comes together that builds this tremendous faith community," he said. Regular devotions include daily Mass, a Miraculous Medal novena and a living rosary. Socially, parishioners come together for an annual picnic and festival.

In recent years, with the redevelopment of the surrounding area, St. Rita has welcomed a new generation of parishioners, one of whom is Christy Rich, young adult coordinator.

"Young adults, we parish hop," Rich said, but "St. Rita's is the place to be. It's not just a place to go, it's not just a social area; all the friendships are grounded. We all come here because we know we can grow closer to Christ here."

The original St. Rita Church, on Hickory Street in the nearby Mount Ida neighborhood, was dedicated in October 1914. Priests from St. Mary Church in Alexandria staffed the mission church until it was elevated to parish status in 1924, and the first pastor was Father Leonard Koster.

Capuchin Fathers, Dominican Sisters and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart worked together to provide religious education for parishioners.

Eventually, with population growth, a new church was needed. The current building on Russell and West Glebe was dedicated on Dec. 18, 1949, and now serves the 2,468 registered parishioners. In 1951, ground was broken for a school, annex and convent for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia who had a presence at the school. Currently only Sister of St. Joseph Alma Bernadette Hurley serves at St. Rita as a receptionist and tutor.

(See how St. Rita is one of several local churches starting up preschools.)

On that same corner both church and school have remained for more than six decades, with parishioners enjoying a no-fuss parish lifestyle focused on traditional Church stability.

"The emphasis is not on keeping up with the latest trends, even the latest trends in Church practices or theology," said Suzanne Arnold, leader of the social outreach ministry. "It's really low key and I think people like that. They expect a traditional service when they come to church and they get it. They don't get a lot of controversy."

The social ministry, which takes care of those in need in the parish boundaries and beyond, is joined by an active respect life group that organizes monthly respect life Masses.

Because of local demographics, a large Hispanic community worships at St. Rita, making up approximately one-third of the parish population, according to Father Gee.

The one Spanish Mass is the most crowded Mass of the weekend, with a large community of extended families attending.

"They love the church," Father Gee said. "Once they get settled in, it's their parish."

David Sullivan, a parishioner since 1992, understands the feeling. The first time he walked into St. Rita, he knew without a doubt that he was in the house of God and that he was there to stay.

The beauty of the church, combined with "the living stones" - the body of Christ that worshipped there - highlighted the traditional Catholic faith, he said. "When I came here it all made sense."

That's because, Rich said, Jesus is at the heart of life at the small parish.

"The tabernacle's in the center," she said. "It's not about the money. It's not about being the cool parish. The parish is formed and everything is maintained because Christ is the center. It's about being holy."

Quick facts

St. Rita Church

3815 Russell Rd.

Alexandria, Va. 22305


Pastor: Fr. Daniel N. Gee

In residence: Fr. Edwin E. Perez

Msgr. Jeremiah H. McCarthy, Ph.D.

DRE: Betsy Nunn


Sisters of St. Joseph

231 W. Glebe Rd.

Alexandria, Va. 22305


St. Rita

3801 Russell Rd.

Alexandria, Va. 22305


Principal: Mary Pat Schlickenmaier

Students: 170

Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 8 a.m., 5 p.m. vigil,

Sun.: 7:15 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m., 1 p.m. (Spanish)

Weekdays: 7 a.m.

Parishioners: 2,468

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011