The diocese’s smallest parish

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For a town of only 4,800 people, Luray has a lot of churches. They're all Protestant denominations, from Baptist to Episcopalian, except one Catholic church - Our Lady of the Valley. It serves a congregation of just over 200 people and draws parishioners from all over the Page County area.
The population of Luray grows in the summer when tourists visit the nearby Luray Caverns or hike the Shenandoah National Park or drive Skyline Drive. The peak season for tourists, and parishioners, is from early spring until the final leaves of autumn lose their color and drop from the trees. The winter brings attendance back to its base of 205, but the nearby Massanutten Ski Resort adds some worshippers during ski season.
The parish is small enough that its pastor, Third Order Regular of St. Francis Father Christopher Lemme, can handle just about everything. He does it all, including cutting the grass on some of the land that surrounds the church and rectory.
"It's a one-man shop," laughed Father Lemme.
In the mid-19th century, Mass was celebrated in private homes by priests from Winchester. At the beginning of the last century, the few Catholics in Luray made the 50-mile round trip to St. John the Baptist Church in Front Royal. Travel was by horse-drawn buggies, so going to Mass was a labor of love.
In 1951, there were just 36 Catholics in the Page County area. The Redemptorist Fathers from the Holy Infant Mission in Elkton were invited by Richmond Bishop Peter L. Ireton to start a mission church in Luray. In addition to Luray, Elkton supported missions in Stanley, Shenandoah, Grottoes and Charlottesville.
The fledgling Luray parish met in the Rotary Room of the Mimslyn Inn in Luray. Bishop Ireton gave special permission for the Blessed Sacrament to be permanently reposed in a meeting room at the hotel. Religious education classes were held at the Page County Bank building. The Richmond "Trailer Chapel" priests helped out by providing mobile opportunities for worship.
By 1953, a group of parishioners wanted to buy 10 acres of land to build their own church. It wasn't easy being a Catholic in rural Virginia in the mid-20th century. For one thing, no one wanted to sell land to Catholics to build a church. As a way to get around this discrimination, parishioners Michael and Theresa Kopec bought the land as individuals and donated it to the Richmond Diocese.
The following year, Bishop Ireton dedicated the completed church. Three hundred people attended the dedication. Redemptorist Father Robert Smith served as founding pastor.
In 1968, the Redemptorists, citing declining vocations, asked Bishop Ireton to be relieved of their parish responsibilities. Richmond diocesan priests starting with Father Robert O. Hickman served the parish until the Arlington Diocese was formed in 1974. In 1976, they became an independent parish and Father Charles Ryan became the first Arlington diocesan pastor of Our Lady of the Valley.
The Third Order Regular of St. Francis fathers assumed responsibility for the parish in 1992 and Father Gervase Cain was the first pastor.
Father Lemme came to the parish in 1998 as associate pastor and in 2000 was named pastor.
Page County is poor. More than 12 percent of the population falls below the poverty line. Many of the local industries have left taking jobs with them.
"Place after place has been going under," said Lori Gallagher, a parishioner who runs the church website.
Gallagher said that places like the Wrangler plant have either closed or are have severely cut back employees. Poultry plants, including Pilgrims Pride, once a mainstay of employment, have left the area or reduced staffing.
Many residents are retirees living on fixed income and they come to Luray to find God's country and a less expensive lifestyle. They make up a large portion of the parish.
Father Lemme said that parishioners are generous even in these tough economic times.
"Our collections haven't been affected," he said. "They've remained steady."
In fact the parish recently donated $500 to help people in Somalia.
There is a history of generosity at the parish. In 1973, through the donations of parishioners, the parish retired the mortgage.
The parish and the Third Order Regular of St. Francis are supportive of a low-cost thrift shop in Luray called Page One, founded by Father Ryan. The order donates $10,000 every year to the thrift store. Parishioners donate items for sale.
The parish partners with other churches in the area to support Page One. The ecumenism extends to other activities including an annual prayer for peace.
There's an active pro-life ministry supported by the 20-member Knights of Columbus council. The Knights donated a memorial to the victims of abortion and it sits in front of a statue to the Blessed Mother, the church patroness.
The parish buses parishioners to the March for Life and has an annual program called 1,000 Rosaries for Life to support an end to abortion. Parishioners have prayed 1,022 rosaries in 2011.
They're small but active.
The parish celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2004 and Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde celebrated Mass. In a congratulatory letter to the parish the bishop wrote, "Your parish has developed into a faith-filled church community, encompassing today more than 300 square miles, serving 100 families and the many visitors to the valley from a diversity of backgrounds, nationalities and cultures."
Father Lemme and his predecessors have worked hard to build the faith-filled community Bishop Loverde wrote about.
"It's small and I know everybody," Father Lemme said. "The people have been good to me in everything I do."

Next week's profile

St. Michael in Annandale


Quick facts


Our Lady of the Valley Church

200 Collins Ave.

Luray, Va. 22835



Pastor:Fr. Christopher Lemme, T.O.R.

DRE: Elizabeth Hutchens


Mass Schedule:

Sat.: 5 p.m. vigil

Sun.:  9 a.m., 11 a.m.

Weekdays: 8 a.m. (April 1 through Sept. 30), 9 a.m. (Oct. 1 through March 31).


Parishioners: 205




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011