The church dates from 1810, replacing an earlier structure, and was built on the site of a former Methodist meeting house. Legend has it that the building fund for its previous structure received its first donation from George Washington. It is a Gothic Revival church with arched windows and towers on each side; the right hand tower is the taller of the two. The building was enlarged in 1826 to include a balcony where slaves could sit. It was renovated again in 1890. The interior is full of statues, paintings, stained glass, votive candle racks the works. The main stained windows are arched, with circular pictures. On the ceiling are three paintings of religious figures.
St Mary’s was established in 1795 and is the oldest Catholic parish in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They have numerous groups, including Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, Catholic Daughters of America, CYO (Catholic Youth Organization), Knights of Columbus, Legion of Mary, Mary & Martha Guild (responsible for decorating the church according to liturgical seasons), and St Joachim & St Anne Society (for seniors). There are six masses each Sunday, including an afternoon and evening mass plus the Saturday evening vigil mass, and three masses each weekday. One mass on the first Sunday of each month is in Latin using the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
Alexandria is located in northern Virginia just outside of Washington, DC. As such, its economy is dominated by private companies that contract to provide services to the federal government. The Old Town neighborhood, where the church is located, is known for its very old clapboard homes (colorfully painted and decorated with flowers for the most part), art galleries, antique shops and restaurants. The sidewalks are cobblestone. Alas, parking appears to be at a premium (we walked to church), but Alexandria is well served by the Washington metro system.
The Revd Dennis W. Kleinmann, pastor, led our service. He was assisted by another priest at communion and there were also five altar boys in attendance.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
God bless the South! The building was packed: families, singles couples. Even the balconies, no longer for slaves only, had people in them. Impressive! Most of the parishioners were beautifully dressed in their Sunday best (i.e., dresses, accessories, collared shirts, dress pants).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. There were people outside on the steps talking, but no greeters on duty. We walked in and I picked up some literature in the back on various church-related events. Then we found our seats.
Was your pew comfortable?
I sat in the right hand side off to the back. The pew was standard for a Roman Catholic church: wooden with a padded kneeler in front for when we knelt during mass.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Before the service, the space was pretty quiet except for a baby behind me who was babbling away. There was quite a bit of rustling taking place as people found their way to their seats, but for the most part it was respectfully quiet.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Mary's Church!"
What books did the congregation use during the service?
I noted the standard We Celebrate book along with a blue St Michael Hymnal and a glossy card with the standard prayers on them. These were all in a little wooden holder in front of me.
What musical instruments were played?
Behind me, up high, was the choir loft with an organ that was played during the service.
Did anything distract you?
The stained glass windows distracted me. They were pretty and caught the morning light and held my eye. I spent time reading who donated them and looking at the various religious figures in them.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was standard Roman Catholic worship. We all stood, spoke the prayers, kneeled when appropriate, and had communion (which kind of took longer than I was used to, as the church was so packed with people).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor managed to pack quite a bit of information into those 10 minutes, but he didn't sound at all rushed.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke on the gospel reading, Matthew 13:1-23, the parable of the sower. Beginning with a story about a little girl who gave out free hot chocolate to strangers because she felt blessed at having received so many presents at Christmas, he said that the little girl's parents had "planted a seed" in her. We should examine where we are in life. Is our garden weeded? Are the weeds of our culture choking us off from God? We must choose wisely so our seed will bear fruit. Do we spurn God's message?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Honestly, the church itself was beautiful with its windows and light colors. I could have stared at the windows and walked about enjoying them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
When I first walked in, I noticed a man who looked homeless sort of sleeping in the back. Oh no, I thought, I hope he behaves. Well, not only did he behave, he took part in the mass. The South truly worries about their souls and I love that! Maybe we shouldn't rush to judgment.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As a rule, Catholics just leave and don't have coffee after mass. There are just too many of us in church! But at this parish, all five priests made themselves available to talk to parishioners. They were in groups involved in conversation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I would say that unless people were talking, everyone just went on their way.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – I don't live in this area; I live up North. But I did like this church very much and it's my son's church. I told him I noticed that they have retreats here and various activities such as sharing your talents with the unemployed. I told him he should get involved if he finds the time.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I did enjoy the service and the sermon held my attention, so yes, it sure did!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I will remember the pretty windows and the homeless man being very respectful and taking part in the worship.