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Our Lady of Lourdes Church marks its 75th anniversary as Amazon-related developments spark parish innovations

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When the second-largest company in the country says it’s bringing you up to 25,000 new neighbors, what’s a Catholic church to do? The answer was clear to the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, Father Frederick H. Edlefsen: you innovate to communicate with people where they are and attract them.

As Father Edlefsen sees it, the Aurora Highlands part of Arlington that’s home to his church has experienced a series of periodic renovations since the end of World War II. As the parish marks its 75th anniversary this year, he said another transition is underway with the advent of Amazon’s second headquarters and an anticipated Virginia Tech University campus.

I call us the granddaughter of the oldest church in Virginia... It’s a lineage.

After seven years as a mission of St. Rita Church in Alexandria, Our Lady of Lourdes Parish was established in 1946 by Richmond Bishop Peter L. Ireton, as Catholics emigrated to Arlington after the war. The 1965 construction of retail stores and the Crystal House luxury apartments coined the Crystal City moniker. Then came the Metro station. Now, the influx of new jobs and local development efforts are revamping the broader area into a walkable, urban community branded National Landing.

Father Edlefsen has embraced the change, which he predicts will reshape the parish. He forecasts "a bit of a revolving door," as young adults and families join the parish and, after several years, may relocate elsewhere, replaced by younger Catholics. While that may be familiar to other Arlington parishes, "we’re going to feel it with a little bit more, I would say, intensity," he said.

While June 25 marks only his first anniversary as pastor there after previously serving as pastor at St. Agnes Church in Arlington, Father Edlefsen’s energy and big-picture vision already have left an impression, parishioners say. 

"It’s as if he lived here all his life," said longtime parishioner and volunteer Kathryn Updegraft. "This guy has found his way into our hearts."

The bulletin now features front-page QR codes readers can scan to volunteer or make weekly offertories online. Printed index cards in the pews and narthex bear the same codes. All that helped Our Lady of Lourdes exceed its goal for the 2021 Bishop’s Lenten Appeal, reversing last year’s shortfall.

While he eschews being labeled tech-savvy and considers himself old school, Father Edlefsen commissioned a stylish, interactive website to attract new parishioners. An "I’M NEW" tab atop the website greets those settling in the area.

The parish boundaries encompass the Pentagon, staffed by military service members often on temporary assignments. Amazon is expected to employ approximately 25,000 people at its new second headquarters here by 2025. Catholics working for Amazon and other tech companies have registered with the parish, Father Edlefsen noted.

Marriage preparation requests have surged, thanks in part to online pre-Cana forms. The new website, launched in November, also highlights the church’s stained-glass windows and close relationship with its patroness. Each month, the pastor publishes a video message about upcoming feast days and parish activities.

Church veterans, including Carole DeLong, who have lived through past changes notice something different — and more new faces. "The parish is excited about getting new people and a lot of them are young," she said. "Which is good."

Digital recruiting has boosted volunteer efforts, which are already substantial. This month a food drive will benefit Catholic Charities’ Christ House pantry in Alexandria and the parish pro-life committee raises funds to support the Gabriel Project and Project Rachel.

While its 50-year anniversary in 1996 included gatherings and festivities planned well in advance, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted staff and volunteers to adopt a scaled-back approach this year.

Parishioners gathered for a day of thanksgiving prayer June 9. After noon Mass, Father Edlefsen led a Miraculous Medal novena, continuing a parish tradition dating back to 1940 when it was still a mission church. An afternoon of Eucharistic adoration was punctuated by an evening rosary, followed by the 7 p.m. Mass.

With pandemic restrictions lifting, larger parish gatherings are anticipated. Plans are in the works for a fall parish picnic and an Our Lady of Guadalupe feast day celebration in December led by the Spanish-speaking community. 

Father Edlefsen recently published a history of the parish on its website. It documents the neighborhood’s first regular Masses in 1927 and construction of a "basement" church in 1939, when Our Lady of Lourdes officially became a mission of St. Rita, which 16 years earlier was itself a mission of the Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town Alexandria.

"I call us the granddaughter of the oldest church in Virginia," Father Edlefsen said. "It gives a sense of the historical depth of this community. It’s a lineage."

The church, which Father Edlefsen described as "mid-century modern" in architecture, was constructed in 1963, with Mass first celebrated there on Christmas Eve. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, church beautification efforts incorporated stained-glass windows along the nave depicting the Annunciation, Nativity, Resurrection and other famous New Testament scenes. More stained-glass art was added to adorn the sanctuary, Mary’s grotto and the narthex. 

For Father Edlefsen, the combination of all that work gives the church a cozy feel and recalls for him the actual grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette.

"And so our story continues to this day with a thriving parish and a very dynamic neighborhood with many folks moving in and many folks excited to get involved in our parish," Father Edlefsen said in a recent video message on the parish website.

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021