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First black parish in Arlington Diocese turns 100

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What better way to kick off a year of parish pride then with a Mass? An unusually warm and sunny mid-winter day greeted St. Joseph parishioners as Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde celebrated the centennial opening Mass Feb. 8 at St. Joseph Church in Alexandria.

Josephite Father Donald M. Fest and Deacons Albert A. Anderson Jr. and Steven J. Morello assisted the bishop. The opening Mass marked the first event in the yearlong parish centennial.

St. Joseph was the first black parish in Northern Virginia, so it was a fitting start to Black History Month festivities.

The Knights of Columbus, Knights of Peter Claver and the Ladies Auxiliary led the bishop to the altar, and the St. Joseph Gospel Choir sang the hymn "The Church's One Foundation."

In his homily, Bishop Loverde spoke of the early St. Joseph community and the outlook for the future.

"For 100 years, St. Joseph has been the place where Catholics, and especially black Catholics, came to find Jesus," he said.

Bishop Loverde thanked the many volunteers that make St. Joseph a vibrant community.

He ended his homily saying, "For all that has been, Deo gracias, Lord, thank you. For all that will be, fiat, Lord, let it be."

The Mass continued with a vibrant spirituality helped by the gospel choir which sang hymns like "Shake the Devil Off," "You Satisfy a Hungry Heart," and "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The history of St. Joseph Church began March 8, 1915, when the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament signed an agreement with Richmond Bishop Denis J. O'Connell granting $8,000 to the Richmond Diocese for a church to be built on Columbus Street in Alexandria. That was half of the expected cost of the church, with the remaining amount to be raised by the parishioners, a difficult task at that time, but a monument to a parish's commitment to the faith.

One of the signatories on the agreement is Catharine Drexel, the legal name of St. Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and heir to the rich Philadelphia family that founded Drexel University. The family had a long history of philanthropy to black and American Indian communities.

At the turn of the last century, Alexandria was a segregated community with black Catholics worshiping in the Lyceum of St. Mary Church. Their spiritual needs were served by Josephite Father Charles Hannigan, who traveled from Richmond each week. It was Father Hannigan who got Drexel interested in helping the new parish.

Ground was broken for the church in the fall of 1915, with the cornerstone laid in the spring of 2016. Josephite Father Joseph Kelly became the first pastor and served until 1936. The Josephites have been at the parish ever since, with Father Fest as the current pastor.

A school was built in 1931 and staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of black sisters. They taught there until the school closed in 1969.

In 1967, Richmond Bishop John J. Russell established the mission as a parish.

Mementos of the early church are displayed in the parish center in the church basement. In one of the display cases is the agreement signed by Bishop O'Connell and St. Katharine Drexel that created the historic church.

At the reception in the parish center following Mass, parishioners and friends looked at the historic documents and reminisced about the past and shared their hopes for the future.

Mathelle Lee, a parishioner for 39 years, said that the Mass was wonderful.

"I always love the bishop's homilies," she said.

Deacon Morello said Sunday's Mass was the same you would see on any Sunday.

"It's a profound spiritual experience every Sunday," he said.

Gwen Day Fuller has been a parishioner for 45 years. She was baptized at the church and went to school there.

Her father, Ferdinand Day, passed away recentlt at 96. He was one of the first children baptized in the church.

"He loved this church," said Fuller.

She said he was active in the parish life right up to the end of his own life.

Fuller said St. Joseph is one of the most diverse churches in Alexandria, a far cry from the early days of the parish.

At the end of Mass, the choir sang an old Negro spiritual, "We've come a long way, Lord."

"We've come a long way, Lord, a mighty long way.

We've borne our burdens in the heat of the day.

But we know the Lord has made the way.

We've come a long way, Lord, a mighty long way."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015