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When schools closed, Haymarket mission began worshipping in a barn

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When there was no room at the inn, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus found refuge in a barn. And when public school closures left parishioners of St. Katharine Drexel Mission in Haymarket without their normal place of worship, they followed the lead of the Holy Family. 

Longtime St. Katharine parishioner José Medina believes it’s all part of God’s plan that his humble barn now is being used for Sunday Mass. For many years, parishioners of St. Katharine, a mission of St. Stephen the Martyr Church in Middleburg, have worshipped at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville as they continue to raise funds for a church of their own. When Prince William County Schools closed at the start of the pandemic, the community lost its place of worship. Since Masses resumed in July, they’ve been gathering at the barn with the permission of Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. 

Medina built the 40-by-60-foot barn to house 12 horses. When that didn't come together, the building became a venue for weddings and quinceañeras until eventually hosting became too much work. “God does things in his way,” said Medina. “We decided to build this barn this big not knowing that in the future it would be used for something else. God guides you to do something; he takes whatever time it takes. See today, we used it as a church. I’m very blessed that we have Mass here at my house.”

On a recent Sunday, parishioners parked in a grassy field and walked up a hill to reach the makeshift church. They sat on plastic chairs socially distanced throughout the barn, or fanned out around the barn entrance under the new awning. Most kept on their winter coats. The pianist rehearsed on the keyboard as Father Christopher D. Murphy, pastor, vested in the tack room turned sacristy. 

A large banner of St. Katharine Drexel hung behind the altar. Tulle and twinkling lights in the rafters were left from Medina's son’s wedding reception a few months ago. The altar and other furniture belong to the parish, said Father Murphy, but the sound system was loaned to the mission by parishioner and seminarian Ricky Malebranche. 

When Father Murphy was serving in the diocesan mission in Bánica, Dominican Republic, he celebrated Mass in different towns in all kinds of circumstances. He still feels a little bit like a missionary back in Virginia. “Down there in Bánica, we had parish trucks, motorcycles and mules, and I spent a lot of time in the saddle, literally and figuratively. That hasn't really changed,” he said. “Going back and forth (between St. Stephen and St. Katharine) with two offices and two places to worship on Sunday, it’s a routine I’ve gotten accustomed to.”

While he’s not fending off the insects and animals he encountered celebrating Mass in the tropics, there are some inconveniences to having Mass in a barn. “Now instead of the heat and humidity, I see my breath throughout the Mass and I have the sensation of my left hand going numb while distributing Communion,” he said. 

Father Murphy is still not sure when they’ll be allowed to return to the middle school, but there are advantages to the barn: namely that they don’t have the same arduous setup and take down each Sunday that they’ve had for the past several years. “In many ways we’re glad to be able to stay here as long as José wants us,” said the pastor. 

Father Murphy is grateful that each week 70-130 parishioners make it out to the barn. “The fact that these people I serve come regularly despite the most inclement weather is so very encouraging,” he said. “In our diocese, we are blessed with comfort and our churches also reflect that. This community could be at any number of comfortable churches right now and they come every Sunday. It's really a boost to my spirits.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021