A parish built on prayer

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Located at the top of Beacon Hill, St. Louis Parish in Alexandria marks one of the highest points in Fairfax County.

But don't be fooled by its million-mile view. With its welcoming atmosphere, which makes room for all people in the ethnically and economically diverse areas surrounding Route 1 in Alexandria, the parish is far from being above it all. Instead it serves all area Catholics, from Spanish-speaking to military families, to retirees and children with special needs.

"If you look at any group in the parish, if you look at the Knights of Columbus, the Legion of Mary or some of our other groups, they are like a snapshot of the world. Certainly at Mass, you see that," said Father Richard Mullins, who has served as parochial administrator since 2009.

The parish dates back to 1925, when it was founded as a mission of St. Mary Church in Alexandria. Originally, the congregation worshipped in a schoolhouse, transported by mule to its current location and converted into a chapel. In 1949, St. Louis was declared a parish and dedicated to its patron saint, Louis IX.

"St. Louis is the perfect saint for families," Father Mullins said. "Everyone focuses on the fact that St. Louis was a king, but more than that, he was a father, a husband, a man of faith. He led two crusades to the Holy Land, ran France and still had time to raise his children. He's the patron saint of no excuses for family life."

For a while, parishioners celebrated Mass in the cafeteria of St. Louis School, founded in 1956. Then, in 1962, the current church was built. Inspired by the French king, the church roof is shaped like the top of a fleur-de- lis, a symbol of the French monarchy.

Father Mullins describes the parish as a place of joyful outreach and faithful tradition or, more simply, "a happy, growing family."

(Find out more about Father Mullins.)

The parish, a spiritual home to more than 1,500 families, offers all manner of ministries and organizations, including a St. Vincent de Paul Society, a St. Joseph Covenant Keepers group, a women's guild, youth ministry and scouting groups. The parish has many educational opportunities for adults, including enrichment programs and Bible studies.

"Our goal is to increase evangelization, to find those who are unchurched and bring them to the Faith, to find those who are lukewarm and make them fervent and to take the fervent and make them saints," Father Mullins said.

There are multiple religious education programs for children. Approximately 225 students are enrolled in the parish religious education program and another 53 are enrolled in a Montessori-style program that gives hands-on lessons about the sacraments for students in preschool through second grade.

"It's very experiential so kids get to see things hands-on," Father Mullins said. "There's a little altar, a tabernacle and vestments, but they get to play with it and touch it."

Recently, the parish added specialized religious education classes for children with special needs and intellectual disabilities, in order to prepare them for the sacraments and participating in the Faith.

(Read more about the religious education programs for children with intellectual disabilities.)

St. Louis School also is thriving, with 420 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"So much of the life of the parish comes from the school," Father Mullins said. "One of the neat things (the principal) does is stresses apologetics and catechesis. Kids learn from a very young age to be able to defend their faith."

Father Mark Carrier, parochial vicar, agreed.

"For me, the school is a very important part of the parish," he said. "The school moms and dads are the backbone of the parish."

Spirituality and prayer play a vital role in parish life. For the past three years, the parish has been home to a perpetual adoration chapel.

"It's really just a regional powerhouse of prayer," said Father Mullins. "The nice thing is that people of all ages participate. We have young people that go, old people that go, families that come together and members of the Spanish community."

(Read about the parish's Prayer Line ministry.)

More prayers come from the cloistered monastery of the Order of St. Clare sisters located only a block away from the church.

"It's what they do. They don't make bread or vestments, but they pray for us," said Father Mullins. "They're storming the gates of heaven."

"They're a throbbing spiritual heart," said Father Carrier. "It's good to go to bed knowing they're praying. I'd rather be by a Poor Clare house than a firehouse."

Spirituality is also lived out through a dedication to the sacraments, including confession, which is offered every day.

"The focus is really on bringing people to the Word," Father Mullins said. "There's nothing more profound than having someone come back to the Church after several years. To watch the parish grow provides immense satisfaction."

In the past few years, work has been done to upgrade the parish grounds. A new roof has been installed, the drainage system has been fixed and school bathrooms have been updated.

But even with the outside work, the No. 1 goal of the parish is the same.

"Our primary goal is to get people to heaven," Father Mullins said. "We want to take them from the highest point in Northern Virginia to the kingdom of heaven, by any means necessary."

Quick facts
St. Louis Church
2907 Popkins Ln.
Alexandria, Va. 22306

Parochial administrator: Fr. Richard A. Mullins
Parochial vicar: Fr. Mark F. Carrier
In residence: Fr. Paul L. Dudzinski and Fr. Joseph Tatro
DRE: Patrick Krisak

St. Louis School
2901 Popkins Ln.
Alexandria, Va. 22306
Principal: Daniel Baillargeon
Students: 425

Mass schedule:
Sat.: 8:45 a.m., 5:30 p.m. vigil
Sun.: 7 a.m. (chapel at Poor Clare Monastery), 7:30 a.m., 8:45 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 5 p.m. (Spanish)
Weekdays: 6:30 a.m., 7 a.m. (chapel at Poor Clare Monastery), 8:45 a.m.
Thursday: 7:30 p.m.

Parishioners: 5,037

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011