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No summer slump at these tourist-attracting parishes

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St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Colonial Beach is located in the heart of the town and just a stone's throw from the Potomac River. So naturally, it’s the perfect place to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. On Independence Day, the parish hosts a bazaar with food tents, a raffle, yard sale, bake sale, music and kids' games. At night, parishioners and guests gather on the parish front lawn and watch the sparkling lights erupt into the night sky.


Suburban parishes may be a little less crowded in the summer, but it's time to shine for St. Elizabeth and other parishes in destination towns such as Alexandria, Fredericksburg and Bayse. Colonial Beach triples in population and Sunday Mass attendance increases by 25 percent, said Father Francis M. de Rosa, pastor. Though the pandemic has dampened the holiday festivities for the past two summers, visitors still come to soak up the sun and swim in the river.


“Being a little beach town is kind of fun. There’s a little excitement in the summer,” he said. “There’s something nice about a little (church) nestled in the resort area — it reminds everyone we’re part of a bigger reality.”


Founded in 1905, St. Elizabeth is one of the oldest parishes in the diocese. Though it’s on the smaller side — St. Elizabeth and its mission, St. Anthony of Padua Mission in King George, have 456 families — Father de Rosa believes there’s special importance to maintaining this long-standing outpost parish, both for locals and visitors. The church doors are usually open during the day, and even non-Catholic tourists will stop in to take a look. “It’s an opportunity to showcase the Catholic religion,” he said.


The parish owns three nearby cottages and when they don’t have long-term tenants, they’re often rented out to vacationers. Other parish visitors own homes in the area. “It’s like their home away from home ... and some of them are big supporters of the parish,” he said. “They definitely like getting away from their big (home) parish, I hear that a lot. It's quiet, peaceful and traditional.”


As the economic development and tourism coordinator for the Northern Neck Planning District Commission, Lisa Hull, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales Church in Kilmarnock, knows just about everything there is to do and see in the Northern Neck, a peninsula on the Chesapeake Bay. There’s the George Washington Birthplace National Monument and Stratford Hall, the colonial home of the only two brothers to sign the Declaration of Independence. There are three state parks, wineries, breweries, walking trails and lots of waterways. Many visitors stay at the Tides Inn, a well-known waterfront resort. Because of the Northern Neck’s natural beauty and historical significance, Virginia legislators introduced legislation this summer to make it a national heritage area.


Catholic visitors coming to see the sights or to visit friends and family often attend Sunday Mass at St. Francis. It’s a small community and the visitors are easy to identify, said Hull. “There are always ushers at the door of every Mass welcoming people and holding the door for folks. We absolutely welcome tourists, we’re very accustomed to that,” she said. “It’s nice to see new faces and people interested in exploring the Northern Neck.”


On the other side of the commonwealth, Our Lady of the Valley Church in Luray attracts spelunkers visiting Luray Caverns and fishers, campers and hikers checking out Shenandoah National Park and the surrounding areas. No matter what brings them, visitors often are charmed by the red brick parish. “They call it the cute church,” said Father Edwin Perez, pastor.


Summer tourists make Sunday Masses more crowded, but usually don’t fill the church entirely. “Although at one point when there was a Boy Scout Jamboree, there were people standing outside,” said Father Perez.


Visitors are greeted by an announcement at each Mass thanking them for coming and inviting them to return, said Kathy Murphy, the parish bookkeeper and administrator. “We have a great community to welcome visitors, kind of unofficial hosts and hostesses that sit in the back of the church. Everybody is given a handshake if that’s what they want,” she said. “We have visitor envelopes and they put their email down so we include them in our Flocknote (email newsletter). And a lot of people let me know that they like that.”


In turn, the visitors are often very generous to the community, and it makes a difference, said Father Perez. “We’re dependent on the tourists. They do make an impact on the parish.”


Both Father de Rosa and Father Perez appreciate that travelers take time out of their getaway to worship. “It’s a testament to our Catholic faith that Catholics go to church on vacation,” said Father de Rosa.


“It's always edifying to see people making God a priority,” said Father Perez. “As they say, there’s no vacation from a vocation.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021