Bustling parish has room to grow

First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
First slide
Previous Next

It's Flag Day in Kilmarnock and a group of local Catholics have gathered to pay their respects. Led by a group of men from the Infant Jesus of Prague Council of the Knights of Columbus, a crowd of nearly 30 adults and children process from the church to the parish hall across the street. A local barbershop chorus, the Northern Neck Bay Tones, provides patriotic music while the group walks.

This flag-raising ceremony is just one of many events celebrated annually by parishioners of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Kilmarnock. Despite its small size - one of the smallest parishes in the diocese with only 405 families - the parish is an active one, with an involved community willing to reach out and get involved.

(For more about the parish's flag-raising ceremony, click here.)

Father James C. Bruse has been pastor of St. Francis de Sales for the past 16 years. During his time in Kilmarnock, he's seen the population increase greatly. Today, many parishioners are retirees who have moved to the area from Northern Virginia. The average parishioner is 77 years old.

"With the Northern Virginia churches, they're very busy, very active, very work-a-day," Father Bruse said. "Down here, you have retirees. It's a different atmosphere. There are retirees who have time to help out. When I was at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (in Lake Ridge) or St. James (in Falls Church), we had to gear everything around 9 to 5. Down here, we can be more flexible. It's busy, but a different form of busy."

The parish is home to an active Knights of Columbus Council and a women's council, as well as a youth ministry and religious education classes. The parish also has strong spiritual devotions - with a devotion to the Holy Infant of Prague and a weekly Miraculous Medal prayer group. The Legion of Mary has 100 auxiliary members and eight active members who visit the sick, homebound and nursing homes to distribute Communion and pray the rosary. Father Bruse estimates that with all the parish activities there are socials in the parish hall at least twice a week.

In Kilmarnock, the parish serves as the only Catholic presence among mostly Methodist, Episcopalian and Baptist churches. Each year, the parish participates in a seven-week Lenten worship service with neighboring faith communities. The various congregations also are working together to form an emergency shelter.

According to Father Bruse, that is what makes the parish special - the willingness of parishioners to dive in and get involved with the community's spiritual and social life.

"My favorite thing would be the love that people have for the Lord," Father Bruse said. "It's rewarding to see that they're very spiritually oriented and that they care about the holy sacrifice in Mass, the sacraments and each other, and love God above all things - and they can show that. That's what's beautiful. It's a very spiritually centered church down here."

The furthest point from the Chancery in the Arlington Diocese, St. Francis de Sales was also the first Catholic church in Virginia's Northern Neck, a peninsula bordered by the Potomac River on the north and the Rappahanock River on the south. Parish history dates back to 1885, when the original church was built. In the early years, it operated as a mission with a priest coming by boat once a week until the priests of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity took up residence. A new church was built in 1956 and in 1966 the church was elevated to parish status. Since 1981, the parish has been staffed with diocesan priests.

Because the parish mission, St. Paul Church in Hague, is 40 miles away, the boundaries of St. Francis de Sales cover hundreds of square miles from Northumberland County to Lancaster to Richmond to Westmoreland.

Up until 2004, there was only one priest assigned to the parish and its mission. For the first 12 years of his assignment, Father Bruse would drive the 40 miles each way every week for Mass. Now, Father John O'Donohue serves as parochial vicar of the parish. With his help, St. Paul provides faith organizations, a religious education program and confessions.

(Read more about Fr. O'Donohue here.)

As time passes, both St. Francis de Sales and St. Paul continue to grow. At St. Paul, the goal is eventually to build a new church to replace one destroyed by termites more than 20 years ago. At St. Francis de Sales, the parish is transforming an old house into a building for religious education classes. An expansion of the parish hall is also in the works.

Lifelong Northern Neck resident Henry Lane Hull has watched the church change and expand over the years. As a local historian, he knows where the community has come from - his grandfather built the parish's mother church, St. Elizabeth in Colonial Beach, back in 1906. Hull attributes the growth in recent years to the parish leadership.

"Father Bruse has been such a great pastor for the last 16 years," Hull said. "He's done so much and been an inspiration. When you have a good pastor, it makes people really want to work to make things better."

Quick Facts

St. Francis de Sales Church

154 E. Church St.

P.O. Box 759

Kilmarnock, Va. 22482


Pastor: Fr. James C. Bruse

Parochial vicar: Fr. John M. O'Donohue

DRE: Nancy Weber

Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 5 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 9 a.m., 11 a.m.

Weekdays: 9 a.m.

St. Paul Mission

7070 Nomini Hall Rd.

Hague, Va. 22469


Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 5 p.m. vigil

Sun.: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 4 p.m. (Spanish)



Parishioners: 1,360, including mission

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011