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St. James celebrates 125 years

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In the 1870s, just years after the end of the Civil War, the sleepy, rural community of Falls Church put down Catholic roots. In those days, less than 1,000 people lived in the town. The closest parish was St. Mary Church in Alexandria. Most people traveled by horse and carriage on dirt roads. But the area and  the Catholic community were poised to grow. 

A white clapboard church with a 66-foot bell tower served as the first home of the St. James Mission. After 18 years, St. James became a parish. In 1902, Father Edward V. Tearney, the first pastor, built the Gothic, sandstone structure in use today. According to a Washington Post article from that time, the funds for the building were donated entirely by Ida Fortune Ryan, wife of a New York millionaire financier, who supported many Catholic projects on the East Coast.

Five fun facts

1) While still a mission, St. James was run by the Jesuits. In the 1880s, it became a diocesan church. In the early 1900s, Sisters of Perpetual Adoration from Louisiana lived on the property and ran the parochial school.

2) Stained glass windows of angels from the original church are now in the Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church.

3) St. James has been the parent church of several missions, including St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, which became a parish in 1909, and St. John the Beloved Church in McLean, which became a parish in 1951.

4) St. James School was once the largest parochial school building in Virginia. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, more than 2,000 students were enrolled. Tuition was around $25 per student. Enrollment dropped once the Virginia Board of Education required a reduction in the student-teacher ratio.

5) The IHM sisters ran an all-girls boarding school, Villa Maria Academy, on the St. James property from 1930 until 1952, when the academy moved to Lynchburg to allow for the growing St. James School.

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In 1873, members of the St. James Mission worshipped in this small, white church located a few blocks from the current church. COURTESY PHOTO 

Father Tearney was devoted to the people of Falls Church, but also to those in growing areas, such as Arlington, where a 20-cent trolley ride to St. James, or a trip across the river to Washington churches was a hardship. He wrote to the bishop, “These people are like sheep without a shepherd  … living within my boundaries but living beyond my reach.”

In 1923, the third pastor, a Belgian missionary named Father A.J. Van Ingelgem, invited the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary to run the parish school, which they do to this day. Like Father Tearney, he traveled far and wide to minister to Catholics in the area. 

One parishioner described him this way: “Father Van was on the smallish side with a large domed head full of brains, philosophy, a distinct sense of humor and an overpowering love of mankind. I do not remember that he ever preached a short sermon.” In 1925, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of his ordination with the parish, other locals and the Belgian embassy. He was given $1,000, which he returned to the parish to cover a heating debt. 

By 1948, St. James had outgrown the three-room school, and so they expanded the building to 10 classrooms, a gym, auditorium, library and cafeteria. The next year, they added a kindergarten and hired the school’s first lay teacher. Buses brought the children to and from school. To meet the need for secondary Catholic education, St. James, along with five other local parishes, purchased land for what became the site of Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington.

In 1952, 50 years after the original church was built, transepts were added and the two front doors became one central door. A rose window was installed above the sanctuary. Msgr. Paul V. Heller bought additional property to enlarge the school; construction was completed in 1955. Today, a multipurpose room, named Heller Hall, is used for activities such as ministry meetings and the Lenten Fish Fry. 

Vatican II brought changes to the church as well as to the liturgy. As parishioners adapted to lay readers and less Latin, the baptismal font was moved from the vestibule to the sanctuary. They opted to keep the marble altar rail, but removed the brass gates leading to the altar. The wooden reredos were pushed flush against the back wall, covering a door where the priests would enter. 

Every Sunday this year, the parish anniversary committee has published photos and stories such as these in the bulletin. Other parishioners are collecting memories of those who call St. James their spiritual home so that future generations can see the ways in which the area, the Catholic church and the St. James community changes and endures.

Anniversary celebration

The 125th anniversary Mass will be celebrated May 21 at noon by Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Father Patrick L. Posey, pastor. To learn more about the parish history, go to bit.ly/stjames125




© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017