St Mary of Sorrows Pre-Civil War Beginnings Into the 21st Century

In 1838, two Catholic families living in Fairfax, the Hamills and the Cunninghams, donated a tract of land to the Diocese of Richmond in hope of having a church built and a Catholic cemetery consecrated. A cemetery was created immediately. In the late 1850s, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad began to lay track westward from Alexandria and advertised for working men. Irish immigrants responded and ultimately settled at Fairfax Station. The pastor of St. Mary’s in Alexandria and his assistant took care of the spiritual needs of the Catholics at Fairfax; they often said Mass for railroad workers in boxcars standing at the Station, about one-quarter mile from the Historic Church. These immigrants became the nucleus of the new parish. Their names can still be read on the tombstones standing in St. Mary’s cemetery.

In 1858 the Bishop of Richmond, Most Rev. John McGill, laid the cornerstone for the new St. Mary’s and designated it a mission of St. Mary’s in Alexandria. The men of the parish built the church on a slight hill overlooking what was then the main road leading into Fairfax from the south. For the framework, they used rough-hewn lumber probably logged from the heavily wooded area that surrounded the site. The only major purchase was a steeple bell from a firm in Baltimore. St. Mary’s was dedicated in 1860.

It was not long after the dedication that the clouds of war appeared on the Virginia landscape. Given the church’s important location on the main road from Fairfax Courthouse to the depot of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad (now Fairfax Station), the area, with St. Mary’s as an identifying point, quickly became an important objective for both Northern and Southern armies vying to dominate the railroads in the area. At the outbreak of the war, Confederate forces were positioned in the area surrounding St. Mary’s. The Union Army controlled the railroad out to Burke while the Confederate Army controlled the Manassas area. Therefore, the land in between, where St. Mary’s stood, was the scene of frequent, violent skirmishes.

In 1862, President Lincoln created the Army of Virginia. The Southern forces, under Generals Lee, Longstreet and Jackson sensed an opportunity to threaten Washington, D.C. Lee’s army met the Army of Virginia commanded by General Pope at the Battle of Second Manassas on August 28-30, 1862. This was called the Battle of Second Manassas or the Second Battle of Bull Run, depending on whether you are a Southerner or a Northerner. Casualties in the three-day battle were horrendous: Pope’s ill-lead army suffered 14,462 killed, wounded or missing, Lee’s forces 9,474.

As the Union Army withdrew before Lee’s troops, a field hospital was moved to St. Mary’s. The wounded were laid out on the Church’s hill, many on pews taken from the church. They awaited the unloading of food and ammunition from the trains in the railroad yard nearby, so they could be placed on trains going east to Alexandria.

Clara Barton had arrived from Alexandria on one of these trains. She was a clerk at the Government Patent Office who had gathered a group of volunteers to tend to the wounded and dying. She nursed the wounded for three days and nights as heavy rains fell and doctors operated in the only dry place available, the church. Many soldiers died and were buried in the churchyard. Although 20,000 Confederate soldiers began the push toward Fairfax Station, Miss Barton, her volunteers and the doctors remained until the last of the wounded were evacuated. She watched from the windows of the last train as the Confederate Soldiers captured Fairfax Station and set fire to the depot. As a result of her experiences at Fairfax Station, she devised a plan to establish a civilian society, which became the American Red Cross. A plaque honoring her heroism sits on the Route 123 side of the church grounds.

After the Second Battle of Manassas, there were many skirmishes in Fairfax. Finally, the Union Army took and rebuilt Fairfax Station in 1864. However, John S. Mosby and his Rangers continually harassed the Union forces in the area.

Cheap land and the promise of jobs within the railroad and lumbering industries attracted large numbers of former Union soldiers to Virginia when the war was over. Many of the former soldiers were German and Irish Catholics. Some settled into Fairfax Station.

The Church Community fit easily into the life of the Fairfax Station community. In spite of widespread bigotry in the United States against immigrants, St. Mary’s services and activities were always announced and covered in the local newspapers. St. Mary’s annual picnics were Fourth of July Celebrations during the 1870’s. Sometime after 1894 the affair was transferred to Labor Day. The event is now considered the oldest outdoor social function in Fairfax County, attended annually by over 10,000 people.

St. Mary’s was served by a priest “circuit rider” who came via train until the early 1900’s. The parish purchased a home near the church that belonged to a prominent family, and it was dedicated as a rectory in 1919.

The church, dedicated in 1860, has changed little in physical appearance. It began as a single-room clapboard structure. Later in the nineteenth century, an entrance vestibule, choir loft and the new steeple were constructed. The two story sacristy / priest’s room was added to the east end and the upper story was used as living quarters for visiting priests. The original wood pews were destroyed during the Civil War, as mentioned above. Tradition holds that the present seats were installed at the order of President U.S. Grant. He often traveled by train to a resort in nearby Clifton, and ordered restitution when he learned of the damage inflicted on the church by Union troops. Most of the present pews date from this time. The interior was originally lit by glass reservoir oil lamps mounted at each window. The power for electric lights was installed about 1927. The original brick chimney and flue were for a cast iron, pot-bellied stove.

There was an elaborate white metal baptismal font within the Church, which is in storage awaiting restoration. The front doors are replacements, as is the steeple bell, which was cast in Baltimore around the mid-1880s. In 1988 the entire interior of the church was refurbished; new cypress clapboards and shutters were added on the exterior in 1995.

The soldiers buried in the churchyard during the Civil War were later moved to Arlington National Cemetery, with the exception of one Confederate named Kidwell. Only those bodies that could be positively identified were moved. Kidwell’s relatives wanted him to remain on Catholic ground, so the contrived a ruse with the pastor to not mark Kidwell’s grave so that his body would not be moved.

Most of the soldiers buried in the churchyard were moved to Arlington Cemetery with the coming of peace; and only one Confederate grave, located at the upper edge of the church’s courtyard, remains as testimony to the battle that raged nearby.

In 1972, Fairfax County declared St. Mary’s a historic district and imposed strict zoning limitations on the land surrounding it to preserve its character and dignity.

The Historic Church continues as the site of weddings, baptisms, funeral Masses and special outdoor Masses. Indeed, the Historic Church is the most sought-after church in the Diocese of Arlington for these occasions because of its beauty and the traditions surrounding it.

To accommodate the influx of families over the years, Missions were founded west of Falls Church towards Warrenton and served by Saint Mary’s pastors. Northern Virginia was rapidly growing and changing. The need for Catholics to be served by Saint Mary’s pastors was an ever-increasing concern, and through their foresight and awareness of the shifting character of Northern Virginia beginning in 1951, land was purchased in Annandale and on Route 237 for the expansion of Saint Mary’s. However, these land purchases were used to construct other Catholic Churches. In 1969, the Claretian Fathers arrived at Saint Mary’s and it did not take long for them to realize that the Fairfax area was continuing to grow and the temporary measures that they initiated to minister to the parish at Robinson Secondary School were no longer adequate. Bishop Russell of Richmond authorized the purchase of land on Sideburn Road in 1973. In response to the ever-expanding parish boundaries, a larger church – the Worship Center – was built on Sideburn Road, about 2 and one-half miles from the Historic Church, and dedicated on December 19, 1979. The Worship Center included an 800-seat worship area, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a social hall named Farrell Hall for Rev. Richard J. Farrell, CMF (pastor of St. Mary of Sorrows from June, 1969 through June 1981), and the parish administrative offices.

As the parish and its ministries and programs continued to grow, the need for additional space was recognized. During 1987-1988, plans were drawn up for a two-story annex on the south side of the Worship Center that would provide a large room dedicated to youth ministry, a library, a studio apartment for a resident care taker, eight smaller meeting rooms for religious education classes, and space for the religious education office. Occupancy permits were granted in September 1990.

In 1995 the Mack Property, adjacent to Saint Mary’s Worship Center on the corner of Sideburn and Zion Roads, b8came available for purchase. The following year, Bishop John R. Keating, Bishop of Arlington, authorized Saint Mary’s to purchase this land for future development of additional parking and the building of a new church. The parking lot expansion was completed in 2005.

In June 2019 ground was broken to construct a new church to meet the spiritual needs of an expanding parish. The new St. Mary of Sorrows Church building is designed to be Roman Catholic while evoking the best of Northern Virginia’s historic architecture. The structure is unmistakably traditional while remaining timeless. This timelessness in built form includes what has gone before her in history, all of what is now in her present, and all of what shall be in her future. The rite of Dedication of the new St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church was held on November 15, 2020.