A church that’s ‘never empty’

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The piety at St. Lawrence "is very striking," said Mary Ann Hartzell, director of religious education at the Alexandria parish for the past four years. "What struck me my first year here, when visiting the church once a day, was that it was never empty."

(See video profile on the parish here.)

A recent Thursday morning at the parish affirmed Hartzell's observation. Once the 9 a.m. daily Mass-goers finished chatting in the parking lot and left to start their days, a steady stream of parishioners quietly entered the church to pray; as one left, another entered mere minutes later.

Father Christopher J. Mould, a Bishop O'Connell High School grad who served as administrator of the parish for two years before being named pastor in 2004, believes St. Lawrence is a "noticeably prayerful parish" because a large number of parishioners take their spiritual life seriously. "They are willing to put time and effort into prayer," he said.

Vibrant spirituality has characterized the parish since it was established in 1967 by Richmond Bishop John Russell, and this vibrancy has been enhanced by its pastors. Starting with Msgr. Frank E. Mahler, each pastor "has tried to be faithful to the sacred liturgy, the fullness of the Faith," said Father Mould.

Mary Flaherty, a parishioner since 1992 who taught religious education for several years and is active in the parish pro-life group, said Father Mould has continued the efforts of his predecessors. "Father Mould is so shepherding," she said. Assisted by Father Tomasz Medrek, in residence, he "really promotes the spiritual life of the parish," said Flaherty. Father James G. Mercer, also in residence, works as a defender of the bond in marriage nullity trials for the Tribunal, and Father Gerard A. Petta, a visiting priest, assists with weekend Masses.

For the first three and a half years after the parish was founded, the St. Lawrence community celebrated Mass at Edison High School, about a mile and a half up Franconia Road from were the church was built in 1970.

Along with the church, the 12 acres of parish property include a rectory, renovated 20 years ago, and parish hall, eventually named after Father Henry Hammond, the third pastor. Father Franklin M. McAfee, the fourth pastor, oversaw a renovation of the church in 1992, and his successor, Father William Erbacher, added the tabernacle and altar rail.

Along with St. Lawrence pastors, the many devotions at the church help cultivate piety. Regular devotions include a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Mondays; exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Wednesdays, which begins after the 9 a.m. Mass and includes an Our Lady of Fatima Prayer Cell, Divine Mercy prayers, a Holy Hour and Benediction; and First Saturday devotions.

The sustenance parishioners receive from prayer supports energetic service to those in and outside the parish. The St. Lawrence bereavement group has "a profound and lasting impact on families" who have lost a loved one, said Father Mould. The 12 or so members "show up, prepare a meal, express sympathy." Northern Virginia is a transient place and people often do not feel rooted, he said. When the bereaved receive empathy from people who may not even know them, they feel more grounded in the parish, he said. "It has a very important effect."

St. Lawrence also has an active pro-life group, which regularly prays the rosary at an abortion clinic on Duke Street in Alexandria; active Knights of Columbus, who hold a newcomers breakfast the first Sunday of the month; a Council of Catholic Women (CCW), with outreach to Christ House and Carpenter Shelter in Alexandria; and a rosary makers group that sends its handmade devotionals to missionaries and hospitals.

The impetus to serve led the parish to join Koinonia, an ecumenical alliance of churches that provides short-term emergency assistance, including food and financial aid and advice, to the needy in Fairfax County.

And as further testament to parishioners' strong devotional life is the "abundant vocations" that have emerged from St. Lawrence, said Father Mould. During his nearly 10 years at the parish, he has seen three former parishioners ordained: Father Ramon A. Baez in 2005, Father Anthony J. Killian in 2008 and Father Robert T. Wagner in 2009.

The zeal for the religious life seems contagious at the parish. In an interview with the Catholic Herald prior to his ordination, then-Deacon Killian said he was inspired by the example of his onetime fellow St. Lawrence parishioner, Father Baez, who Killian called "a man of deep faith."

From service to fellow parishioners and the needy to the call to the religious life, the faithful at St. Lawrence are sustained not only by prayer and devotions, but also through their emphasis on community.

According to Elisabeth Horswell, CCW president, the parish has a familial feel.

"Before anybody even knew who I was, I felt like, OK, now I'm home," said Horswell, who also serves as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion and regularly visits Sunrise Nursing Home in Springfield, where she prays with residents, reads the Sunday Gospel and provides Communion. "People are very warm and welcoming," she said.

Within this church that is rarely empty, parishioners find a nourishing spiritual home.

Quick facts

St. Lawrence Parish

6222 Franconia Rd.

Alexandria, Va. 22310


Pastor: Fr. Christopher J. Mould

In residence: Frs. James G. Mercer and Tomasz Medrek

DRE: Mary Ann Hartzell

Mass Schedule:

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

Sun: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. (extraordinary form of the Roman rite)

Weekdays: 9 a.m.

Parishioners: 3,950

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011