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Basilica of Saint Mary: At 225, Virginia’s oldest parish is thriving

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Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated a Mass Oct. 10 on the occasion of the 225th anniversary of the founding of the Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria, noting that “the history of our nation is intertwined with the history of this parish.”

Established in 1795, Saint Mary was the first Catholic parish in the Commonwealth of Virginia. In late 2017, it attained the additional distinction of being named one of 89 Catholic churches in the nation designated as a minor basilica. 

In his homily, Bishop Burbidge said Saint Mary’s long history means that “the parish community has endured some of the same trials that our nation has faced going back to its earliest days, including wars at home and abroad and even a pandemic a century ago. And through all of that, the parishioners persevered. We remember their steadfast faith and fidelity to Christ and his church and allow their example to inspire us as we confront these difficult times we are facing.”

He noted that the anniversary “is an occasion for us to remember, to rejoice and to renew. We remember in a special way the priests, consecrated religious and lay faithful, some of your family members and friends, who lived, worshipped and served at Saint Mary’s throughout its rich history and have gone home now to God.”

Father Edward C. Hathaway, rector, told about 150 parishioners present at the 8:30 a.m. livestreamed Mass, “From President George Washington in 1795 to President Trump, Saint Mary’s has been a vibrant light of Christ because of the faith, prayers, generosity and support of our parishioners. We’ve waited 225 years for this celebration,” he added.


The designation as a minor basilica was an honor that “highlights the parish and its story, which is the story of history in our region,” Father Hathaway said in an interview this summer. No specific anniversary date in 1775 is recorded in the historical records, so the basilica has been celebrating all year with lectures, displays and other events.



Among visible signs of being a minor basilica are the distinctive red and yellow “ombrellino” (symbolic papal umbrella) and “tintinnabulum” (bells) hung to the sides of the marble altar. 

The basilica’s theme for this 225th anniversary year is “United in Faith, Family, Service, and Tradition.” That speaks to the parish’s leadership in charitable work in the Alexandria community.

“We cannot say enough about the charity and love for the poor the basilica has demonstrated, through their support of Catholic Charities,” said Art Bennett, Catholic Charities president and CEO. “Parishioners long ago embraced Christ House and all the programs that operate there.”

From the Knights of Columbus to the parish young adults group, the Hibernians and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, he said parish groups “regularly offer financial support or volunteers, and prayers, for our men’s housing program, evening meal for the homeless, food pantry and emergency assistance program,” as well as many other projects.

The basilica community also has been a major contributor to the Bishop’s Lenten Appeal. “The parishioners of the Basilica of Saint Mary have always displayed tremendous support to the programs and ministries funded by the Bishop’s Lenten Appeal,” said Bob Mueller, executive director of the diocesan Office of Development. “Year after year, they have surpassed their goal, which is a testament to their commitment to further the diocesan mission to teach and grow our Catholic faith and reach out to those in need.” 

Catholic education

In his homily, Bishop Burbidge said he rejoiced in “knowing the significant role Catholic formation and education has played in the life of your parish, and how parents and parishioners have sacrificed immensely to provide a school known for its strong Catholic identity and excellence in education for 151 years.”

The Basilica School of Saint Mary, about six blocks from the basilica, is the oldest and largest elementary/middle school in the diocese; it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2019 and currently has more than 700 students. The Sisters of the Holy Cross opened the school in 1869 “as a free school for all parish children,” according to a history on the school’s website. 

After the Mass, Bishop Burbidge accompanied Father Hathaway to the school for a blessing of the first phase of a multi-phase renovation, and an outdoor reception and tour for about 75 donors and guests. 

The $8 million renovation project will accomplish “the first serious and meaningful construction in 70 years,” said Shawn McLaughlin, co-chair of the Mary Lead Us campaign, which already has raised close to $6 million for the project, targeted for completion in 2023. Phase 1 focused on security upgrades in the reception area; phase 2 will include a “connector” section joining the original school with the old convent, which houses the middle school. The connector will add extra classroom space and a state-of-the-art information technology center, he said. Phase 3 will include upgrades to turn an uneven blacktop parking lot into a multipurpose play yard with turf that can also accommodate parking.

“Ensuring the religious education of our children dates back to the very beginning of our parish,” Father Hathaway said in remarks before the blessing. “This transformative building project is a testament to those who have gone before us and a legacy we leave for future generations.”


Its colonial roots make the basilica a popular destination for Catholics from around the region, as well as anyone interested in American history. The basilica’s website features an extensive historical timeline, as well as architectural background and a virtual tour. A favorite detail is that the first brick structure known as the Church of Saint Mary was built on land purchased with a donation from George Washington, who made a contribution in 1788, the year before he became president. 

The parish moved to its present location in 1810. The sanctuary and a major portion of the present-day church were built in 1826 and dedicated in 1827. Many expansions and restoration projects have taken place since then, always retaining the building’s historic yet intimate ambiance.

Black parishioners from Saint Mary’s were founding members of St. Joseph Church in Alexandria in 1915. St. Katharine Drexel was a contributor to that parish.  

Father Hathaway said that earlier this year, the basilica founded the Saint Katharine Drexel Society "in response to events of racial injustice. The society prays weekly for the healing of our nation, especially for the historical wounds inflicted by slavery that continue to affect our populace, and in reparation for the sins of racism, past and present. I don’t know of another group quite like this in the diocese," he said.


Tom Carter has been a parishioner of Saint Mary’s since 1964, when he was 12 years old and started attending church there with his parents. Now his children are parishioners too. “There is something so reassuring about belonging to a parish that is so solid and constant,” he said. “It’s got roots.”

But Saint Mary’s is about more than history. “It is so vibrant and there are so many ministries — page after page of activities you can get into.” As a member of the parish finance council, he’s learned a lot about how involved the parish is in the community, supporting charities in Alexandria and beyond. “There are so many things we’re contributing to that I didn’t even know,” he said.

George Lynch, a parishioner involved in many parish ministries since the mid-1980s, agreed. “The history is there, but we’re here now, and somebody is going to look back at us some day and call us history. So, we do what we can to keep us going.”

But he also said he appreciates the parish’s “deep roots. If you move around the Washington area and talk about Saint Mary’s in Old Town, it’s recognized.” 

He and his wife, Helen, are both daily Massgoers, and he said they have found the pastors’ messages over the years “consistently faithful and uplifting. If we don’t get there on a daily basis, we feel like we missed something,” he said.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020