Joy nourished by faith

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Father David A. Whitestone, pastor of St. Leo the Great Parish in Fairfax, rummaged through several scrolls in the church rectory after a recent Thursday morning Mass. He selected and unrolled one to reveal plans for an architecturally traditional church, then held up an image of a church depicted in bold, geometric shapes. The first was a blueprint for St. Leo pre-Vatican II; the second was the Vatican II-inspired vision ultimately adopted for the church building. The current structure was dedicated in 1966, a year after the conclusion of the Church council that led to, among other changes, a new Catholic aesthetic.

The older plans for St. Leo - which began as a mission of St. Mary of Sorrows Parish in Fairfax in 1956 and became a diocesan parish in 1957 - were discovered recently in the rectory as an exciting artifact of parish history, said Father Whitestone.

With the two drawings in hand, Father Whitestone offered an image of the parish: a community that embraces Catholicism's classic and modern traditions, unified by joyful faith.

Though there are more than 26 parish groups, including an active St. Vincent de Paul Society that Father Whitestone calls "one of the shining stars of the parish," the community is not unique because of "how many activities we have."

"What is unique is the pervasive love of the Church and joy," Father Whitestone said. "My responsibility is not to impose particular traditions, but to call people to deepen their faith in Christ, and everyone is touched in a different way."

Father Whitestone, pastor for the last four years, said parishioners' exuberant faith is expressed through a variety of liturgical styles, from praise and worship at the 5 p.m. Sunday Mass to Gregorian chant at the 7:30 a.m. Latin Mass, celebrated the first Sunday of the month.

For longtime parishioners Robert and Therese Downey, praise and worship is spiritual sustenance, as well as a ministry. Together they lead the music group, a form of worship that especially "speaks to youth, to high schoolers," said Therese.

Vision, a smaller group of praise and worship singers, shares faith-filled music at the parish every first Saturday of the month at 7 p.m. The evening also features eucharistic adoration.

Father Whitestone said that in addition to the groups and liturgies, St. Leo the Great Catholic School is thriving. Since its establishment in 1955, the school has been staffed by Benedictine Sisters, School Sisters of Notre Dame from Baltimore and Sisters of Notre Dame of Chardon, Ohio, successively. It is now lay-staffed.

Father Whitestone said the school does more than share the same parking lot - it is "an essential element of who we are, of our outreach."

Mary Adams, a parishioner since 1974 and parish coordinator since 1990, said the parish community of about 11,000 is "a unique blend of ages." Some parishioners live in low-income apartments, while others live across the street in million-dollar homes. The parish includes Vietnamese, Koreans, Africans and Hispanics, said Adams, but "we make up a community, all trying to get to God together."

Although modern trumped traditional in the design of the church, the spacious building reflects the old and the new. The church, along with the school, underwent major renovations, completed in 2003 under the guidance of then-pastor Father John D. Kelly, 1999-2007.

Father Whitestone said the church received "a facelift" that included new skylights and the reconstruction of the roof, walls and bell tower. The tabernacle also was moved to the center of the altar and above it a cross depicting the resurrected Christ was replaced with a crucifix. The latter two changes reflect a more traditional altar arrangement, but the church maintains a modern feel, "with a sense of devotion and warmth," said Father Whitestone.

Construction continued at the parish this summer, as Providence Hall, frequently used by the Knights of Columbus, underwent renovations.

Parishioner Jane Fedor, 87, converted to Catholicism at age 18 and attended the first Mass on the site of the new church, in what is now the basement. She said sawhorses served as a makeshift altar. From Mass in the basement to those in the remodeled building, she said being a Catholic and a parishioner of St. Leo "gets better every year, the older I get."

This enthusiasm for St. Leo and the Faith, said Father Whitestone, "is evident, especially after Mass on Sunday.

"There is a very tangible sense of joy here," he said. "And it is love of the Church and fidelity to the sacraments that nourishes that joy."

Quick facts

St. Leo the Great Parish

3700 Old Lee Hwy.

Fairfax, Va. 22030


Pastor: Fr. David A. Whitestone

Parochial vicars: Fr. Ramon A. Baez, Fr. Robert J. Wagner

In residence: Fr. Joel D. Jaffe

Deacons: Nicholas J. LaDuca, Noel Vivaldi

DRE: Lee Cena

Mass Schedule:

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

Sun: 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. (Spanish), 5 p.m.

Weekdays: 6:15 a.m., 9 a.m.


School: St. Leo the Great Catholic School

3704 Old Lee Hwy.

Fairfax, Va. 22030


Principal: David DiPippa

Students: 446

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010