An Interactive History of the Parish
By Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, Pastor
On the 80th Anniversary of St. Agnes
In July of 1608, Captain John Smith and fourteen English explorers sailed from Jamestown and up the Potomac River where they encountered a village of woven grass longhouses inhabited by an Algonquin-speaking tribe that called themselves Nacotchtank. To Captain Smith, the village’s name sounded like “Nameroughquena.” It was located where I-395 and US-1 now connect with Virginia. Smith sailed as far as Gulf Branch, a stream that flows into the Potomac off of Military Road, where a nature center is now located. Native Americans once roamed and settled along the Virginia side of the Potomac, going back to the Paleo-Indian period more than 13,000 years ago. These Native Americans often passed through what is now Cherrydale, an area thriving around the Five Points intersection of Quincy Street (formerly Cherry Valley Road), Old Dominion, Lee Highway and Military Road, where St. Agnes Parish is now located. English colonists farmed these lands in the mid 1700s. In the 1800s, cherry orchards flourished in these parts of Alexandria County (which would be renamed Arlington County in 1920). Hence, Dorsey Donaldson’s 1839 application for a neighborhood Post Office requested the name “Cherrydale,” after his own orchard that was located behind the current firehouse. Cherrydale got another boost in 1902 when Washington Post owner, John Roll McLean, and West Virginia Senator (and former Secretary of War) Stephen Benton Elkins purchased the developing Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad. It was a 15-mile electric rail line that began running in 1906 from Georgetown, crossing over the river to Rosslyn, passing through Cherrydale and on to Great Falls Park in Fairfax County. At the time, no one foresaw what we can now see in retrospect: These events were tributary to the establishment of St. Agnes Parish.
Before the American Revolution, few Catholics lived in Virginia, largely due to the Commonwealth’s Anti-Catholic laws. A new frontier opened for Catholics in 1786 with the passage of Thomas Jefferson’s “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” The first Catholic parish in Virginia (including what is now West Virginia) was St. Mary’s in Alexandria, established in 1795, with the financial help of George Washington’s friend, Col. John Fitzgerald. Rumor has it that Washington made the first contribution. Meanwhile, President Washington had commissioned French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant in 1791 to make plans for the new capital city. With the growing prominence of the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia in the new United States of America, Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of Richmond on July 11, 1820, encompassing the entire Commonwealth. Fr. Patrick Kelly was consecrated its first bishop on August 24 of that year. By 1900, Catholics in Alexandria County attended Masses at either St. Mary’s in Alexandria, Holy Trinity in Georgetown or St. James in Falls Church (established in 1892). Between 1900 and 1910, seventy new housing subdivisions were built in the County. In May of 1909 – the same year that Ford introduced the Model T – Bishop Augustine Van de Vyer established St. Charles to “meet the needs of the people of Clarendon and the surrounding County of Alexandria for about forty square miles.” Fr. Frederick Lackey, who was also Chaplain at Fort Myer, was the founding Pastor of St. Charles. He broke ground for a new church on August 10, 1910. With growth spurred on by the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad, Cherrydale Catholics asked for a mission in 1913. As time went on, these events too would be tributary to the making of St. Agnes Parish.
On January 4, 1914, Fr. Lackey, relieved of his Fort Myer duties, was officially charged with the Cherrydale mission. The first Cherrydale Mass was offered in a small grocery store near Lee Highway and Oakland Street, probably where Safeway is now located. Later, Masses were said in Pioneer Hall, a movie theatre between Pollard and Quincy Streets. After the last Saturday picture show, the men of the Cherrydale mission prepared the theatre for a Sunday morning Mass. Confessions were heard behind a piano. As numbers grew, Mass was moved to Cherrydale Public School. Funds were being raised to build a church.
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 foundation 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 Great War going on and a shaky economy, the building committee paid the contractor only 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. Parishioners fed the Pastor in their 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.
Fr. Johnston, an Army reserve officer, was called to service in World War II. Fr. R. Emmet Hannon (of Sacred Heart in Winchester) was appointed Pastor in 1942. He built the school and convent. St. Agnes Elementary School opened on August 20, 1946. Five Sisters of Notre Dame arrived from Cleveland in order to teach five grades comprised of 200 students, with Sr. M. Magdalla as the first Principal. By 1948, the school had grown to eight grades when Sr. Magdalla was transferred to India. Sr. 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 church that could seat 700 and a school addition. This First Communion class would be among the first graduates of Bishop O’Connell High School, which opened 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 over 1,500 families and over 900 students enrolled in the school.
After World War II, many newcomers moved to Arlington as the post-war government expanded. In 1959, Stratford Junior High School (now H-B Woodlawn) on Vacation Lane in Cherrydale was the first County school to desegregate. By the 1960s, momentum for suburban development began. Visionary prospects for the region 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 design at the parish level. In Northern Virginia, numerous new churches were built from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Meanwhile, back at St. Agnes, Fr. Hannon died on September 20, 1960 and was succeeded by Fr. Bernard Moore, the third Pastor. He built the current rectory in 1961, and he started the Brother Dennis program in 1965, which still gives a portion of St. Agnes’ collection to charities and missions globally. Moreover, Fr. Moore built the current church, starting in 1961 with a fundraising goal of $500,000. 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 with a cross on the top. It was an age of “clean lines” and “earthy colors.” The fan-shaped church was typical of the new microphone era. The design was more conducive to the acoustics of electronic sound amplification than traditional church designs. A man of his age, architect Joseph Johnson was the designer of the new St. Agnes.
Of note is the now scarcely discernable stained glass window on the steeple overlooking Washington, DC. It is called the “Lord of Lords Window,” giving St. Agnes Parish a special affinity with the Solemn Feast of Christ the King (the last Sunday in Ordinary Time). Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 in response to the rise of secularism. In hues of yellow and gold glass, the window depicts the spirit of Christ permeating the three branches of the U.S. government. Christ is raising his right hand, with two upward fingers, depicting him as “Teacher of Law.” The globe is embraced by his left hand.
The new church was consecrated at a Solemn High Mass on December 10, 1966 by Bishop John Russell. Fr. Moore died on October 2 1967. Monsignor Harold Nott was appointed fourth Pastor. In the early 1970s, he was influential in the creation of the Diocese of Arlington, which was to be split from the Diocese of Richmond in June of 1974 with Bishop Thomas Welsh as its first shepherd. He was succeeded by Bishops John Keating (1983-1998), Paul Loverde (1999-2016) and now Michael Burbidge. Msgr. Nott died on July 8, 1976, and Fr. Frank Hendrick served as Pastor until 1981. Subsequent Pastors were Frs. Joseph Loftus (1981-87), Alan Lee (1987-92), James Gould (1992-2001), Robert Ruskamp (2001-02), Msgr. James McMurtrie (2002-03), Lee Roos (2003-2014) and Frederick Edlefsen (2014-Present). Fr. Patrick Posey, now Pastor of St. James, is a son of St. Agnes.
In 1991, the Pontifical Council for the Laity issued guidelines permitting perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in parishes, with the bishop’s permission. In May of 1999, Fr. James Gould instituted the Our Lady of the Eucharist Adoration Chapel at St. Agnes, which was moved to its current location in 2000. Fr. Gould also added the stained glass windows above the sanctuary, plus numerous statues along the perimeter of the church.
We must not forget that the real foundation of St. Agnes begins with the Holy Spirit, who conceived Christ in Mary’s womb, and who conceived the Catholic Church at Pentecost. Our parish, like the entire Universal Church, is the work of God who constantly brings new life to his people through Baptism.
St. Agnes was founded – and it grew – in an era when Catholics were establishing themselves as an emerging minority with a clear and strong identity. As the “new St. Agnes” was going up in the mid-1960s, folks back then (like Bob Dylan) knew that “times are a changin’.” But that may not mean what people in the 1960s thought it meant. For “the new St. Agnes,” it means this: Our suburban parish, like many others, is no longer an emerging enclave. The “new St. Agnes” must show gratitude to God for what He has done for her ever since that day in 1913 when Cherrydale Catholics asked for a mission church. Sharing Pope Francis’ vision, we must be a “field hospital” for those wounded by the world, and a “missionary base” that lives out the Gospel in every facet of life. Like the message on the “Lord of Lords Window,” Christ must permeate all of life through us. After the Second Vatican Council, and after the “new St. Agnes” was built, Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have defined a new era for our community: we must be an outward looking and missionary parish. Praised be Jesus Christ!
Note from Fr. Frederick Edlefsen: Many of the details about St. Agnes’ history in this article were gleaned from the 50th Anniversary booklet compiled by Ann Augherton, Michael Bates and Rev. James Verrecchia. Given the limits of my knowledge, some important facts may have been left out. Any errors in this narrative are strictly mine , and I invite correction from those “who saw it happen.”