Virginia's oldest parish

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St. Mary Church in Alexandria has been a valued presence in the Alexandria community for more than 200 years. Located amongst the ever-changing restaurants and boutiques in Old Town, the parish has been a solid and faithful friend to Virginia's Catholics for generations.

The oldest Catholic Church in Virginia, St. Mary was established in 1795. At the time, Col. John Fitzgerald, an early mayor of Alexandria and a friend of George Washington, took up a collection to raise funds for the church. Local tradition states that Washington made the first donation.

Once funds were available, the original chapel was built near the Wilson Bridge in the South end of the city. Father Francis Neale was the founding pastor.

In 1810, the church moved to its current location on South Royal St. Sixteen years later, the building was expanded to include a stone front, a sanctuary and trecepts that included designated balcony seating where slaves could sit.

(Find out how the parish fared during the Civil War years.)

In the 1830s, the original chapel was demolished, its bricks used to build the Alexandria Lyceum. The land where the original chapel stood became home to the St. Mary Cemetery and, decades later, St. Mary School.

As the years have passed, Old Town Alexandria has grown and so has the parish. Today, St. Mary is home to a lively community filled with parishioners always willing to share of their time and energy.

Father Dennis Kleinmann has been at the parish for more than 11 years. For the past seven and a half years, he has been pastor.

For him, what makes St. Mary unique is its tradition.

"There's a tremendous sense of tradition here and people look for that," he said.

Some of the challenges come, he said, in trying to work around the busy schedules of parishioners.

"The majority of our parishioners live very busy lives," he said. "It was different when I was out in Winchester. There, everything seemed to center on the parish life, but here it is just one more thing that they have to do."

To accommodate those busy schedules, the parish offers three daily Masses and eight different opportunities to attend Sunday Mass. Confession is offered every day and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament takes place every Thursday.

The parish hosts a reflection series during Advent and Lent, featuring weekly holy hours that include spiritual talks and quiet prayer time. In addition, the parish hosts "Sermon on the Mount," a program which draws a number of parishioners together for wine and cheese and presentations about various spiritual topics. Similar to Theology on Tap, the programs take place three to six Tuesdays in a row four times a year.

"We started that ten years ago," Father Kleinmann said. "It's an adult program, but in kind of a casual setting. It lets people socialize, talk and then there are questions and answers."

Another tradition for the parish is its annual 40 hour devotion during the days leading up to the parish's feast day - the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In recent years, the parish has also held an annual Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Old Town, involving more than 200 people.

"We try to provide a lot of different spiritual opportunities," Father Kleinmann said. "We try to provide opportunities for (parishioners) to deepen that spiritual life and get to heaven."

In terms of organizations, the parish is home to many, including an active young adults ministry, a Legion of Mary, a Catholic Daughters of the Americas, a Knights of Columbus council that is shared with St. Joseph Parish in Alexandria, and a new council of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which held its first official meeting last month.

The parish has an active St. Vincent de Paul society, which restarted back in 2002 and serves the entire city of Alexandria, helping those in need to pay rent and medical bills and learn how to budget and find employment.

"They do a great hands-on ministry," Father Kleinmann said. "They're a real godsend."

Other parishioners of St. Mary are very generous with their time and money as well. After Hurricane Katrina, the parish donated to diocesan collections, adopted a parish down in Louisiana and sent a team of parishioners down to the area to rebuild six houses. Over the course of a year and a half, the parish donated more than 300,000 dollars to help the hurricane victims get back on their feet.

Other fundraisers include a food drive over Thanksgiving, a giving tree that supports the Gabriel Project and Migration and Refugee Services, and the parish's annual Christmas baskets, which usually include a turkey and enough food for a holiday meal.

"There really is a tremendous outpouring here in terms of what we give to the poor," said Father Kleinmann. "Absolutely, we need prayer and sacraments, but we also believe in giving witness to the love of Christ and trying to see Christ in those less fortunate than ourselves, whether they live in Mississippi or right here in Old Town, the homeless or whoever that might be. That's all a part of spiritual life too."

Betty McAndrews has been a parishioner at St. Mary for the past 12 years. She currently serves as vice-regent for the Catholic Daughters of the Americas.

"This parish is very active and involved," she said. "There are wonderful priests and lots of groups and our church never fails to respond to any need."

The church's activities are spread out over nine buildings spanning six blocks. Because of the urban setting, there is little room for construction projects or building expansions. Instead, much work going into preserving and maintaining the historic buildings, the newest of which dates back to the 1940s.

Major changes to the church took place in the years following the Vatican II council. More refurbishing came in 1985 and then, again, within the last two years. Recently, the church received new carpet and marble flooring.

Repairs were also necessary following August's 5.8 magnitude earthquake, which resulted in several broken or cracked stained glass windows, a three inch crack in the church bell tower and damage to Jesus's right arm in the crucifix above the altar.

(Read more about the damage from August's earthquake.)

For Father Kleinmann, one of the best things about St. Mary is the school. The school was founded by the Sisters of the Holy Cross in 1869 and the current school was built in the 1940s. With 725 students, it is the largest parochial school in the Arlington diocese. Every week, Father Kleinmann visits with students, teaching on Tuesdays and offering confessions twice a week.

He believes school events like the annual Christmas bazaar and Spring Fling - add a vitality to parish life. Other annual parish events include a winetasting hosted by the Catholic Daughters of America and a Oktoberfest every Fall.

(Find out about a recent coat drive which students participated in.)

"We try to provide things across the board to deepen (parishioners') spiritual lives, their lives of charity, but also that social aspect as well," Father Kleinmann said. "My hope and prayer is that we're providing what they need to live more spiritual and more holy lives here and to ultimately get to heaven someday."

Quick Facts

St. Mary Church

310 S. Royal St.

Alexandria, VA 22314


Pastor: Fr. Dennis W. Kleinmann

Parochial vicars: Fr. Michael J.R. Kelly and Fr. Robert L. Ruskamp

In residence: Fr. Jean-Claude K. Atusameso

DRE/ CYO: Jeanne M. Guerin and Marianne Hussle


400 Green St.

Alexandria, VA 22314


Principal: Janet Cantwell

Students: 725

Mass schedule:

Sat.: 8 a.m., 5 p.m. vigil.

Sun.: 7 a.m., 8:30 a.m., 9:15 a.m., 10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 5 p.m.

Weekdays: 6:30 a.m., 8 a.m., 12:10 p.m.

Parishioners: 12,100

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012