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Purcellville parish celebrates 100 years of history

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Hundreds of parishioners and community members spread out across the parish grounds at St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville Sept. 18 for a picnic that pulled out all the stops to mark 100 years since it became a mission. 

Four grillmasters cooked burgers and sausages on a large outdoor grill. Parishioners who run nearby Dirt Farm Brewing and Corcoran Vineyards and Cidery provided drinks for a wine and beer garden. A band played in front of the church. Abundant tents provided shade on the warm September afternoon and some families brought blankets and camp chairs to relax on the shady lawn. 

In the parish education center, tables were spread with side dishes and desserts. More than 60 pies and elaborately decorated cakes were on display for a silent auction, and a centennial cookbook with parishioners’ top 100 recipes was on sale, one of many to benefit the church.. Parish T-shirts and a commemorative Christmas ornament also were available. For the kids, there were moon bounces, pony rides and a train. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge visited the parish in August to celebrate an anniversary Mass

“This was a tough year to be locked down, but it’s a wonderful day to come alive again,” said Father James R. Gould, pastor, who welcomed parishioners and introduced a few guests, including his mom, Alice, visiting from West Des Moines, Iowa. 

He introduced Kassie Kingsley, one of the church’s longtime parishioners, who has been at the parish since 1950, when she was 7 years old. Parishioner Manny Terminella first came to the church in 1944 at 2 weeks old. He lived elsewhere for many years, but moved back to Purcellville in 2014.

Father Gould said that at the end of the year, photos and artifacts from the parish community will be enclosed in a time capsule to be opened in 100 years. The name of the newest parishioner, perhaps a baby to be born near the end of December, will be added before the capsule is sealed. 

Sandy Regan, a member of the planning committee, said volunteers put the elaborate event together with the help of the Holy Spirit. “We prayed, ‘Please give us a sunny day and no COVID restrictions,’ ” she said. 

“We haven’t been able to do this for a while,” said Barbara McNally, daughter of parish Deacon Jack Vassallo, who died in January. 

The church commissioned local historian Eugene Scheel of Waterford to write a parish history, which he said is the history of the Catholic faith in Loudoun County for the last 100 years, but really began even earlier. His research found a report from colonial times noting 24 “papists” in the area as early as 1748. He noted that the old St. Francis de Sales Church on Main Street was the largest church in Purcellville when it was built, “but when they left, it was the smallest.” 

The old church, dedicated May 29, 1921, was the first Catholic church in Loudoun County west of Leesburg’s Immaculate Conception Church (later renamed St. John the Apostle), which was founded in 1878. Until 1967, St. Francis was a mission parish, with no priest in residence. 

In 1967, the Diocese of Richmond signed an agreement with the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of the New Jersey Province to serve at St. Francis, and it became a full parish, initially with 99 families. In 1974, when the Diocese of Arlington was established, the parish was part of the new diocese.

As Loudoun County developed, the parish outgrew its building, and the new church was built, just north of Route 7 and west of Berlin Turnpike. It was dedicated June 28, 1992. At that time, the parish served 250 families. Today it has more than 1,500, “and draws from all the little towns around here,” Regan said.

One of the most distinctive features of the church is a giant cross on the parish grounds, overlooking Route 7. Before construction of the new church began, sculptor Tomas Fernandez, a parishioner, began to discuss his vision for the cross. With the approval of the parish and private donations to cover the cost, he began work on the sculpture, which is 33 feet tall, 22 feet wide and weighs 17,000 pounds. The figure of Jesus is a cutout, lit by halogen bulbs that when illuminated at night, can be seen from Route 7.

The Franciscan Friars served for 30 years, until 1997, then the parish got its first diocesan pastor, Msgr. Thomas J. Cassidy. The parish continued to grow, and a new parish education center was dedicated Sept. 21, 2014. Three years later, the interior of the church was remodeled.

“It’s an amazing parish,” said Beth Ann McRoberts, one of the organizers of the silent auction. “We are beyond blessed.”

Find out more

Visit the parish website at saintfrancisparish.org/.



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021