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St. Ambrose in Annandale breaks ground on a new church

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After years of planning and preparation, St. Ambrose Church in Annandale broke ground for a new house of worship Dec. 11. “It has been a long and demanding process,” said Father Andrew J. Fisher, pastor. “However, this project has brought many blessings. I have been amazed at the prayers, support, enthusiasm and generosity of our parish. Parishioners have mobilized with projects to fundraise and many have volunteered countless hours of their professional skills to move this project forward.”

Discussion about a new church began shortly after Father Fisher arrived at St. Ambrose in 2009, he said. “Parish leaders shared with me their concerns about some sizable maintenance issues in the church. Sadly, due to its age and design, the cost to update the church was estimated to be close to half the cost of a new church building. After prayer and discussion, the parish agreed to move forward with plans to build a new church that would meet the needs of our parish and school.”

A dozen or so parishioners and some school children gathered in November to watch the demolition of the church, which was built in 1977. The new church will seat 800 people, 200 more than the old church, and it will be built on the same site. Before an excavator tore the church down, Knights of Columbus helped with interior demolition, said parishioner Fred Haislmaier. Many of the building materials such as the steel, aluminum, concrete and the bricks will be recycled or repurposed, he noted. Onlookers watched with excitement as the building came down — a sign that they were one step closer on their journey to a new church.

“I was baptized in this building 30 years ago and I’m sad to say goodbye,” said parishioner Meredith Hartley. “But I’m also really glad to say hello to the new and the beautiful.”

The new church will be built in the Romanesque style, characterized by solid stone walls, rounded arches and vaulted ceilings, said Father Fisher. The new church will have a long main aisle down the nave leading to the sanctuary, in contrast to the many aisles in the old, round church. The new church will have some stained-glass windows from the original church as well as 11 stained-glass windows from a closed parish in Philadelphia that were made in Germany in the late 1800s.

“Many parts of the new church's design, including the red brick exterior, seek to imitate the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, where the saint is buried,” said Father Fisher. “We are also honored that the Basilica of St. Ambrose gave our parish a fourth-century brick from the actual tomb of St. Ambrose. This brick will be the ‘cornerstone’ of our new church.”

The new church was designed by Harrison Design Architects and will be built by Whitener & Jackson Inc. The estimated completion is early to mid-2023. Until then, the parish will gather for Mass in the parish hall and school gym.

At the end of the groundbreaking ceremony, representatives of the parish poured dirt from several holy places on the construction site. The earth was collected over the past few years on parish pilgrimages from places such as Jerusalem, the Grotto of Lourdes and the catacombs of Rome. “There is an ancient custom of placing soil from holy places on the foundations of new churches,” said Father Fisher. “We wanted to continue that practice, and unite ourselves in a real way to these holy places and the saints who lived there.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021