Restoring Our Legacy: A Shining City on a Hill - The Next Generation of St. Agnes
On an overcast afternoon in January 2017, I did an experiment. I walked up 20th Street with this question in mind: What did neighbors and newcomers see when they approached St. Agnes? I looked at the church as if I were seeing it for the first time. What was my impression? Too many walls, I thought. It needs opening up. Then I asked this question: What’s redeemable about this piece of mid-century modern architecture? In broad outline, what does it look like? As the son of an impressionist painter, I asked, “What’s the impression?” As a priest, I asked, “What biblical image comes to mind?” A light went on. It looks like a mountaintop, I thought. St. Agnes stands on one of the first hills of Virginia’s piedmont, rising into a mixture of hard “mineral” textures: red brick, green copper and a lofty concrete steeple topped with glass and a cross. The Book of Revelation came to mind.
“The angel carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the holy city of Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, shining with the glory of God. Its radiance was like a most precious jewel, like a jasper stone, clear as crystal.” (Revelation 21:10-14).
“That’s it!” It’s the shining “City on a Hill.” The New Jerusalem. The Heavenly City. It just needs a little “crystal” – some transparency. We’ll open it up with one central, glass entrance, giving it a sense of openness and light. It’ll say, “Come in!” We’ll turn the statue of St. Agnes around so she welcomes you into the City. There’s more: we can move the confessionals further to the sides of the church. We’ll glass-in the wall between the vestibule and the nave, making it transparent and family friendly. Parents who might be in the vestibule with children for a few minutes can hear and see the Mass. Moreover, we can light up the “Lord of Lords” stained-glassed window on the steeple. Then the beautiful image of “Christ the Lawgiver” can be seen in the evenings.
Before my arrival at St. Agnes, my predecessor Fr. Lee Roos started the first stages of a Master Plan to renovate St. Agnes’ aging church, convent, gym and school. After lots of interviews with parishioners in order to assess parish needs, we hired Winstanley Architects and Planners to work with our Master Plan Committee. Winstanley’s creative team of architects have been great to work with. We bandied about many ideas, perspectives and possibilities. But we needed a Vision, I thought. So it was on that providential day in January 2017 that the Vision came to mind. Our dynamic community of Arlington invites us to make St. Agnes an iconic “City on a Hill,” representing the Heavenly City beyond time. We need facilities that invite everyone to Christ’s life, the sacraments and the Mass.
In one sense, this Vision started in 1914. On the corner of Lee Highway and Oakland Street, there was one small grocery store, perhaps where the Safeway is now. Fr. Frederick Lackey offered Mass in that store on January 4, 1914. It was the first Mass in the Cherrydale neighborhood. Five years prior, Fr. Lackey was made the first Pastor of the newly established St. Charles Borromeo parish, and he broke ground for that new church on August 10, 1910. About a mile northwest of St. Charles – around the Five Points intersection of Quincy Street (formerly Cherry Valley Road), Old Dominion, Lee Highway and Military Road – the Cherrydale neighborhood had been growing for decades. In 1839, a gentleman named Dorsey Donaldson applied for a neighborhood Post Office, requesting the name “Cherrydale” after his orchard behind the firehouse. In 1902, Washington Post owner John Roll McLean and West Virginia Senator, Stephen Benton Elkins, purchased the developing Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad. By 1906, it was a 15-mile electric line running from Georgetown, through Rosslyn and Cherrydale, to Great Falls Park in Fairfax County. Cherrydale was growing, opening up the need for a new parish.
Not long after Fr. Lackey’s first Mass in the grocery store, the congregation outgrew the space. So he started saying Masses in Pioneer Hall, a movie theatre between Pollard and Quincy Streets. After the last Saturday picture show, parishioners prepared the theatre for Sunday Mass. Confessions were heard behind a piano. Numbers continued to grow. Mass was moved to Cherrydale Public School. Funds were being raised to build a church. You might say that was St. Agnes’ first capital campaign – even before there was a St. Agnes.
In July of 1918, a search began for church property. Fr. Joseph Snyder, who once preached a Cherrydale mission, convinced Naval Admiral A. W. Weaver to donate $1,500 for the purchase of three 75’ X 130’ lots for a new church on the corner of N. Randolph and 21st Streets. On June 8, 1919 – the same year as the first transatlantic flight and the founding of the League of Nations – ground was broken to build a 250-seater church for $11,235. It ran $800 over budget. But with the shaky post-war economy, the contractor settled for half of the excess. The Mission was called “St. Agnes” because Admiral Weaver’s sister was a Sister of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul whose religious name was Agnes, after the 4th century virgin-martyr. The church was consecrated by Bishop Dennis J. O’Connell on January 18, 1920. Fr. Lackey celebrated its first Mass, and Fr. Snyder preached the homily. On June 15, 1920, two adjoining lots were bought for $1,200. During the 1920s, an altar rail, statues, side altars and Stations of the Cross were added.
On November 8, 1936, during the Confirmation rites at the Mission, Coadjutor Bishop Peter Ireton announced that St. Agnes would become its own parish. Fr. Edward W. Johnston, the Vicar at St. Charles, was appointed founding Pastor of St. Agnes on November 15. He lived at St. Charles until the St. Agnes sacristy was furnished as a bedroom and office. Fr. Johnston dined in parishioners’ homes. A basement was added in 1937, which was used for fundraisers, bingo, card games and suppers. A rectory was built in 1938. By the late 1930s, St. Agnes was home to about 300 parishioners and offered two Sunday Masses. Benedictine Sisters, and later the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, taught Sunday school.
Father Johnston was an Army reserve officer, and he was called to service in World War II. Father R. Emmet Hannon, from Sacred Heart in Winchester, was made Pastor in 1942. He built the school and convent. St. Agnes School opened on August 20, 1946. Five Sisters of Notre Dame arrived from Cleveland to teach five grades of 200 students. Sister M. Magdalla was the first Principal. By 1948, the school had eight grades. That year, Sister Magdalla was transferred to India, and Sister Mary St. James was made Principal and Superior, with a faculty of ten sisters and one lay teacher. On May 6, 1951, the same day as First Communions, ground was broken for a new 700-seat church and a school addition. Moreover, this First Communion class would be among the first graduates of Bishop Denis J. O’Connell High School, of which St. Agnes was a founding parish, opening in 1957. On May 23, 1952, Bishop Ireton consecrated the new church (now the gym) at a Solemn High Mass. By the end of the 1950s, St. Agnes had about 1,500 families and over 900 students in the school.
After World War II, newcomers moved to Arlington as the post-war government grew. In 1959, Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn) on Vacation Lane in Cherrydale was the first Arlington County school to desegregate. By the 1960s, Arlington County was booming. Visionary prospects for northern Virginia’s counties abound to this day. In the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council ran from 1962-1965. Liturgical changes, the use of microphones and new trends in architecture were affecting church designs. In northern Virginia, several new churches were built from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Father Hannon died on September 20, 1960 and was succeeded by Father Bernard Moore, St. Agnes’ third Pastor. He built the current rectory in 1961, the same year he started a $500,000 capital campaign to build the current church. An artist’s rendition of the church featured 1961 Fords and Chevys on a very level and nicely shaded parking lot, from which the church seemed to rise like a rock formation topped with a cross. It was an age of “clean lines” and “earthy colors.” The fan-shaped church was typical of the post-war microphone era, more conducive to the acoustics of electronic amplification than traditional churches. Throughout the Catholic world, vernacular Masses replaced Latin (a murmuring language that sounds badly on a microphone). The new electronics reoriented the priest “versus populum” (facing the people). The “more you hear” the “more you want to see.” In the ‘60s, media guru Marshall McLuhan said that “All media work us over completely” and that TV was giving people “in-depth participation” in world events. For post-war Catholics, the emerging electronic atmosphere challenged the liturgy and church designs. A man of his age, architect Joseph Johnson designed the current St. Agnes church. It was consecrated at a Solemn High Mass on December 10, 1966 by Bishop John Russell.
Today, we’re paving the way for a new generation. St. Agnes is to be a shining “City on Hill,” inviting passers-by to join our pilgrimage to the eternal Heavenly City. You’ll soon be contacted to support our Vision, which began when Admiral Weaver first donated $1,500 in 1918 to buy St. Agnes’ first properties on the corner of N. Randolph and 21st. It’s the Mission of Christ: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house…” (1 Peter 2:5). Let’s build the shining City on a Hill.
Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor