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‘You always have a spot’

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Amid late-afternoon traffic, frazzled commuters sometimes pull off Henderson Road into the parking lot of St. Clare of Assisi Church in Clifton for a quick respite from their cars and to refresh their souls, according to Father Thomas J. Lehning, pastor since 2004.

The church, nestled on about 20 rolling acres embraced by trees, offers a spiritual breath of fresh air not only to weary drivers, but also to the parishioners who receive the sacraments within its open, window-lined interior. The aesthetics of St. Clare provide "peace and quiet, a place to focus on God and prayer," and the relatively small size creates intimacy, said Father Lehning.

The setting and demographics of the parish are due in part to Fairfax County zoning laws, which require homes in the area - unless grandfathered in - to be built on at least five acres. The larger tracks of land are pricey, so families tend to be older and more established. "You are not going to build your starter house" in the neighborhood, Father Lehning said.

Yet the faithful of St. Clare have not always worshipped in such a scenic location.

St. Clare of Assisi was established as a mission of St. Timothy Parish in Chantilly by then-Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh in 1980 and placed under the patronage of St. Clare to honor a group of Poor Clare nuns who established a monastery in Alexandria. Mass initially was celebrated in the Clifton First Presbyterian Church and then in the Old Clifton Fire House for 10 years.

Sandy Sugrue, who said she'd been "a parishioner since the beginning," recalled in a recent interview how during Mass at the station, in which her son received his first Communion, fire trucks would sometimes make their noisy exit.

Parishioners were willing to endure the disruptions out of love for the Eucharist and each other, and that remains. "What's changed is the faces and location; you don't see a change in the spirit of the church," said Sugrue.

"The parishioners still stand by each other in times of crisis and also just when someone needs more spiritual support in their life," she said.

The mission was reassigned to St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Clifton in 1989, and on May 12, 1991, then-Arlington Bishop John R. Keating dedicated St. Clare of Assisi Church. St. Clare was established as an independent parish in 1996 with Msgr. Frank E. Mahler as founding pastor.

While parishioners worshipped in the new church, there was no rectory, so Msgr. Mahler lived at St. Andrew, and Father Paul Dudzinski, pastor from 1998 to 2004, and Father Lehning resided about a half-mile away in a house, which also served as a parish office.

Because it looked residential, those looking for a priest sometimes had trouble finding the rectory and "were not sure if they were stumbling in upon someone's dinner," said Sugrue.

The current rectory was blessed by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde last year, and now if someone seeks priestly ministries they need not worry about dinner disruptions, although he or she might receive a welcome from Chiara, Father Lehning's 4-year-old cocker spaniel who bears the Italian name for Clare.

A parish hall is part of the parish master plan, but Father Lehning is committed to financial prudence and realizes it might not happen for a while.

"It's a hope, but I'm not going to put the parish into a financial hole," he said.

Because of area zoning restrictions, the parish population has remained fairly constant for the past eight years. "People come, people go, but the population remains stable. You can't assume that if you build a hall you will attract more families," he said.

The parishioners who come and go possess a shared dedication to community - and enjoy the spiritual fruits that fosters.

Mike Mochel, parishioner and candidate for the permanent diaconate, finds the intimacy at St. Clare a gift.

"Community is instrumental to prayer life," he said. "When you celebrate the liturgy with people you know and feel comfortable with, it helps you sink into the liturgy rather than focus on the mechanics."

Father Lehning added that "sometimes close-knit means closed. But the parish is a quietly welcoming place. People are not put in the spotlight where they feel compelled to get involved."

Many do get involved, however, and very much so. If there's something that needs to get done, "you give them a go and people are drawn like a magnet to help out," said Father Lehning.

Mochel is one of those people. After serving as music director of the 10:30 a.m. Sunday choir, he helped start a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program last fall. Until then, if someone approached the parish interested in entering the Church, Father Lehning would give instruction on a person-by-person basis.

The program attracted not only would-be Catholics, but those already in the Church who "wanted a refresher in the Faith," said Father Lehning. This mix of Catholics and non-Catholics "makes for rich discussion," he said.

Along with a willingness to open their minds to spiritual dialogue, parishioners open their hearts to those in need.

The parish maintains its link with the Poor Clares, donating items such as toilet paper, notepaper and basic food items.

The Ladies of St. Clare provide support to the needy through prayer and fundraising; parishioners help supply the Western Fairfax Christian Ministries food pantry; and the Knights of Columbus host various service events including a Thanksgiving food drive.

The Knights also organize "a lot of fun times," such as a parish picnic and pancake breakfasts, said incoming Grand Knight George Alexa.

Parishioners also help tend to the surrounding natural environment - in which deer, raccoons, woodpeckers, foxes, owls and hawks have been spotted - and the Knights lead a road-cleaning day on Henderson Road.

Such care for the Lord's handiwork cultivates reverence for creation, and the "beauty around us helps us connect with our God who created it," said Father Lehning.

In addition to the beauty inside and outside the parish, the closeness felt among parishioners gives them a sense of belonging and deepens their connection with God.

"It's a small, faith-filled parish, which lets you be very intimate. Here you always have a spot," said Alexa.

St. Clare of Assisi Church

12409 Henderson Rd.

Clifton, Va. 20124


Pastor: Fr. Thomas J. Lehning

DRE: Margaret Mattei

Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 8 a.m., 5:30 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m.

Weekdays: 8 a.m.

Parishioners: 1,500

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011