A ‘firm foundation of faith’

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"An authentic Catholic culture."

It sounds pretty straightforward, but that's what Father Robert J. DeMartino, pastor of St. William of York Parish in Stafford, is trying to create within his parish community.

"Everything about St. William of York from the moment you get on the property should help us all move toward that final end of union with Christ," Father DeMartino said in a recent interview. "We have to be in union with the Holy Father, the bishop, adhere to all the teachings of the Church. We have to celebrate the sacraments frequently, reverently and well. We have to be committed to excellence in preaching. In our school we have to make sure that we are truly forming our children for Christ."

And boy, are people on board.

Parishioners praise their pastor and parochial vicar, Father Jerome A. Magat, for their in-sync preaching, creation of parish harmony and continuous formation of parishioners in the Faith. Rite of Christian Initiation of Adult (RCIA) classes, geared toward the faith formation of non-Catholics, are attended widely by cradle Catholics. Every moment is a teaching moment - either in word or by example.

The priests stress the importance of "the little things," said Rich Davis, business administrator. Proper dress for Mass, arriving and leaving at the appropriate times, and reverence for the Eucharist make the top of the list.

"Father seems to try to include everything in terms of forming people," Davis said.

Father DeMartino said the goal is a "firm, solid foundation" of faith - a place where "the pope or the saints could walk in, breathe the air and say, 'this is what it should be.'"

Faith formation opportunities include Bible studies, adult education, RCIA classes, religious education and the Rite of Christian Initiation for Children. Other parish ministries include a Catholic Youth Organization, altar serving ministry, Cub, Boy and Girl Scouts, Legion of Mary, music and pro-life ministries, and young adult and senior ministries.

Though St. William of York was officially founded in 1971, the history of the Catholic community in Stafford County began well before then. According to a history of the Arlington Diocese compiled by Anthony D. Andreassi and a parish history from the St. William of York website, the origins of Catholics in the area date to the mid-17th century and the famed Brent family, "the leading Catholic family of Virginia during colonial times."

In 1897, a cemetery dating back to the time of the Brents was discovered. During the 1920s, then-Richmond Bishop Denis J. O'Connell bought the land that included that cemetery and tasked the Richmond Catholic Women's Club with its restoration. A wall was built and altar erected, and the first field Mass, which continues annually to this day, was celebrated in the cemetery on Oct. 6, 1929. A large crucifix, which still stands on U.S. Route 1, was raised in 1930.

Without a formal church, Mass was celebrated in family homes until 1943, when St. Therese Mission church at Midway Island, near Quantico, was built to serve local military personnel and their families. Visiting priests from St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg celebrated the sacraments at St. Therese until St. William of York Church was dedicated on May 6, 1956, as a mission of St. Mary.

Fifteen years later, in 1971, St. William of York was established as an independent parish with Father John S. Wysocki as its first pastor. The parish grew from an initial 25 families to its now 7,704 registered parishioners. A school opened in 1992, which now serves 226 students under the director of Frank P. Nicely, principal. Sisters from the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Infant Jesus served at the parish from 1998 to 2010.

(See stories on the sisters' work and their departure.)

Fathers DeMartino and Magat both arrived in 2008, replacing Father David P. Meng, pastor, and Father Andrew J. Heintz, parochial vicar.

As the only Catholic Church in the 280 square miles of Stafford County, St. William of York works hard to minister to three nursing homes, two jails, a hospital and the constant needs of parishioners. So Father DeMartino doesn't have to keep stressing financial needs to the parishioners - a constant challenge - volunteers help keep the parish running. The Father Widmer Council of the Knights of Columbus recently painted the interior of the church for its new renovations and Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde dedicated a new altar last summer. The ladies auxiliary of the Knights help with landscaping.

Recent convert Joan Nebel works "wherever they want me." Father DeMartino relies heavily on the abilities of Father Magat and his staff for parish success.

"It's a recognition that people have different gifts," he said.

This staff includes Nicely, who is in his first year as principal.

There's a strong connection between the school and the parish, Nicely said. "It's one family."

What the pastors do from the pulpit, Nicely and his crew do for the school - "promote and build an authentic Catholic culture."

"Forming the families in this idea is a big deal," Nicely said.

Students celebrated the Blessed Mother's birthday with cupcakes. In lieu of attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C., last month, kindergarteners mini-marched around the school holding "We Love Life" posters. Nicely works with the sports director to ensure a Christian sense of competitiveness in the school's athletic program.

(See this story on St. William of York's participation in a loose athletic alliance.)

With the proximity of the parish to the U.S. Marine Corps Base at Quantico, maintaining a stable parish community can be tricky.

"Just when you think you've formed the parish, it seems to change all over again," Father DeMartino said.

Ministering to non-English speakers also is a challenge. Languages don't come easy to Father DeMartino, he admits, and he struggles when preparing a Spanish-language homily.

"It takes me weeks to prepare for this one Mass, but I want to be there for them as their pastor," he said.

His hope is that the two populations will integrate successfully at St. William of York.

"I don't like to use the words '(Hispanic) community,' as if that's a community separate from us," he said. "We are one body of Christ, so that common identity of 'Catholic' includes all of us."

As a member of the body of Christ, Rita Hagans, who volunteers with the senior ministry, said St. William of York is simply "my home." After her husband's death in 1999, Hagans was visited and supported by her parish community.

"It was such relief and such peace," she said. "We look out for one another. It's the love of the parish that keeps us all together."

Quick facts

St. William of York Church

3130 Jefferson Davis Hwy.

Stafford, Va. 22554


Pastor: Fr. Robert J. DeMartino

Parochial vicar: Fr. Jerome A. Magat

DRE: Jim Benisek


St. William of York School

3130 Jefferson Davis Hwy.


Principal: Frank P. Nicely

Mass Schedule:

Sat: 9 a.m., 5 p.m. vigil, 7 p.m. Spanish vigil

Sun: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:15 p.m.

Mon., Tues., Thurs.: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m.

Wednesday: 9 a.m., 6:30 p.m. (Latin Novus Ordo)

Fri.: 9 a.m., 6:30 p.m.

Parishioners: 7,704

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011