The History of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church In Arlington, Virginia

On the Occasion of its 75th Anniversary By Fr. Frederick Edlefsen

“In the pages of Sacred Scripture the great leader of the Jewish people, Moses, speaking under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit tells his people how pleasing it is to Almighty God for them to celebrate in a prayerful fashion the great events of their religious, political and social life.  Taking our cue from the inspired word of God, we have come today to celebrate a great event in our brief but interesting career.  It is an event the full effects of which cannot be measured by men or time, but rather it looks to God and to his Recording Angel to evaluate properly the full effects of a command that was whispered low by one consecrated to God for the service of his people.”  (Rev. Charles A. Ryan, Vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes from 1950-1955, the introduction to his pamphlet, “Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Arlington, Virginia, 1927-1952”, subscript, “To Jesus through Mary”)


The Setting


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.  It was located where I-395 and US-1 now connect, about a mile from Our Lady of Lourdes.   Native Americans once roamed and settled in what is now the National Landing area as far back as the Paleo-Indian period, more than 13,000 years ago.  By the mid-1700s, English colonists farmed some of the surrounding lands. 


Before the American Revolution, few Catholics lived in Virginia, largely due to the Commonwealth’s Anti-Catholic laws. Margaret and Mary Brent were the first permanent Catholic settlers in the Virginia colony.  They were the aunts of the famous George Brent, attorney for King James II.  At first, they settled in Maryland, as Margaret was the executrix of Leonard Calvert, the Governor of the Maryland Colony.  Being a landowning Catholic woman, she encountered resistance and moved to Virginia with her sister.  It was their nephew, George Brent, who obtained from James II a proclamation of religious tolerance for the settlers of what would be called Brent Town, the Commonwealth’s first Catholic settlement.   Jesuit priests secretly offered Mass there. 


After the American Revolution, 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 (which then included West Virginia) was St. Mary’s in Alexandria, established in 1795 with the financial help of George Washington’s friend, Colonel 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 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.  On August 24, 1820, Fr. Patrick Kelly was consecrated as the first Bishop of Richmond.  The Richmond Diocese included what is now West Virginia until 1850, when the Diocese of Wheeling was formed.  However, St. Mary's in Alexandria was within the Archdiocese of Baltimore because, from 1800 to 1846, it was part of the District of Columbia.  In 1858, the City of Alexandria and its surrounding areas were added to the Diocese of Richmond.   When the Civil War started in 1860, there were fewer than 10,000 Catholics in Virginia, served by eight priests.  In 1870, the mission of Saint James was founded in Falls Church, and the mission of Sacred Heart was founded in Winchester.  


By 1900, Catholics in Alexandria County (renamed Arlington County in 1920) attended Masses at either St. Mary’s in the City of Alexandria, Holy Trinity in Georgetown or St. James in Falls Church, which became a parish 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 as the seventh parish in the Diocese of Richmond, to “meet the needs of the people of Clarendon and the surrounding County of Alexandria for about forty square miles.”  Fr. Frederick Lackey, the Chaplain at Fort Myer, was the founding Pastor of St. Charles.   With growth spurred on by the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad, Catholics in the Cherrydale neighborhood asked for a mission in 1913.  These events were tributary to the founding of St. Agnes Parish, which became a mission of St. Charles in 1914 and a parish in 1936. 


The Mission of Our Lady of Lourdes


In 1912, some Catholic women from the Saint Elmo, Abington and Del Rey neighborhoods in Alexandria were teaching children’s catechism in a cobbler shop.  This was the beginning of a Catholic community that would eventually become Saint Rita’s parish.  In 1914, Bishop Denis J. O'Connell of Richmond permitted that a mission church be built under the patronage of St. Rita of Cascia, a patroness of “impossible causes.”  Ground was broken in 1914 on Hickory Street and Mount Ida Avenue.  Saint Mary’s clergy said Mass for the mission until it became a parish in 1924.  Father Leonard Koster was St. Rita’s first Pastor.  Dominican Sisters and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart travelled by train from Washington and Baltimore to teach catechism.


In 1925, a Mr. Joseph Lash moved his family from Saint Mary’s in Alexandria to the corner of 25th and Hayes Streets in Aurora Hills.   Few had cars, and it was a long walk to Saint Rita's, especially for families with children.  So Mr. Lash prevailed upon Fr. Koster to say Mass at his home on September 11, 1927, with twenty-four adults and children present.  


On the previous July 6, the Bishop Andrew J Brennan bought eight of the fifteen plats located on the block on which Our Lady of Lourdes now stands.  The properties were purchased from Henry C. Morris, who also sold land to Calvary Methodist Church.  


Fr. Koster continued saying Masses in Aurora Hills with the Bishop’s permission.  Mr. Lash arranged for two Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart from Towson, Maryland to teach children’s catechism.  St. Rita's parishioners picked up the sisters at Union Station in the morning, and Mr. Lash picked them up from St. Rita’s to teach at the mission before driving them back to Union Station.  The congregation grew to 63 people whish was too many for Mr. Lash’s house.  Mass was moved to a community hall above the fire station, known as the Fire Hall, on the corner of 23rd and Eads Streets.  An additional Mass was offered at the Mount Vernon Theater on Mount Vernon Ave.  By the 1930s, the mission’s women formed a guild named for Saint Anne, hoping that she would be the patroness of the forthcoming parish.  Meanwhile, one of Joseph Lash’s daughters entered the Sisters of the Holy Cross.


With Coadjutor Bishop Peter L. Ireton’s approval, a mission church was built near the corner of 23rd and Hayes Streets shortly after Fr. Koster obtained a permit from Arlington County on July 18, 1939.  Within four months, a basement church was built for $15,000.  It was solemnly blessed on November 19, 1939 by Fr. Thomas Rankin, Pastor of St. Mary’s and Vicar Forane of the Northern Virginia Deanery, with Fr. Koster and other priests present.  Bishop Ireton placed the mission under the patronage of Our Lady of Lourdes, rather than Saint Anne.  Priests from St. Rita's said Mass with the occasional help of Capuchin Friars from Catholic University. There were two Sunday Masses, one at 7:30 AM and another at 11:00 AM, plus a Noon Mass at the Mount Vernon Theater.  The Fire Hall was used for luncheons, dinners, bingo, dances, card parties, and social activities.  The mission’s grounds were used for lawn parties and carnivals, creating a sense of community among the soon-to-be parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes.  


Starting in 1940, Fr. Koster led a Miraculous Medal Novena on Wednesday evenings, followed by a Holy Hour with Benediction and rosary.  This novena continues until this day after the Wednesday Noon Mass.  Fr. Koster was often assisted by Fr. Thomas Finnegan, Fr. William McGonigle, and the Capuchin Fathers of Catholic University.


The New Parish


After World War II, the number of Catholics moving to Northern Virginia increased markedly and would continue to do so in the forthcoming decades.   In 1946, Bishop Ireton established three parishes in the area:  Our Lady of Lourdes, Blessed Sacrament and Our Lady Queen of Peace.  Fr. Robert Beattie, the assistant Pastor at St. Mary’s in Alexandria, was appointed the first Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.  It is notable that his brother, Fr. Dixon Beattie, became the founding Pastor of St. Ann’s in north Arlington in 1947. 


Fr. Robert Beattie was installed as Pastor on June 9, 1946.  At the installation, Fr. Koster read Bishop Ireton's letter establishing Our Lady of Lourdes as a new parish, and Msgr. Edward L. Stevens, Pastor of St. Mary's and Vicar Forane, performed the installations rites for Fr. Beattie.   A house was purchased at 758 23rd Street, where the Keshet Preschool is now located, to be the rectory.  Meetings and CCD classes were held in the garage.  Between 1946 and 1948, the two remaining plats on 23rd Street, and most of the plats along 24th Street, were purchased for the parish.  Six houses stood along 24th Street.  By 1950, the house on the corner of Hayes (801 24th) was the housekeeper's quarters, and the house next door (807 24th) was the rectory until 1970.  The other houses were razed.  The church’s completion was deferred due to those expenses.  In 1947, Fr. Ernest L. Unterkoefler was transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes from Saint Peter's in Richmond to take Canon Law classes at Catholic University and to assist Fr. Beattie with the youth programs.  


During World War II, the U.S. government transformed an experimental farm (located on the 1,100-acre Custis-Lee family estate, where the fire station is now located on Hayes Street) into dormitories for civilian women workers, known as Arlington Farms.  Father Beattie arranged for the Holy Ghost Fathers and Oblates of Mary Immaculate to minister to the women.  When Arlington Farms closed, Fr. Beattie wrote to the Bishop of Richmond: “Although the expenses of operating this station of the parish exceeded the financial receipts, no less than five vocations to the sisterhood were started in that time.”


In January 1950, Fr. Unterkoefler was transferred to Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond and later became the Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.  Fr. Charles A. Ryan was the new assistant, who oversaw the scouts, a teen club, and other youth activities, including a parish camp for fifty-seven children.  He was also Chaplain to the Fire Department.  When fire trucks went down 23rd Street, Fr. Ryan was known to put on his red sweater and run outside, and the trucks would slow down for him to jump on and ride, holding on with one hand.  Fr. Ryan wrote the first history of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1952. 


A New Church


In June 1954, Fr. Beattie was transferred to Our Lady of Nazareth in Roanoke, and Irish-born Fr. Charles Comaskey was appointed Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes.  He would remain so for 18 years.  In 1955, Fr. Ryan was transferred to Holy Cross in Lynchburg.  Fr. Carl Naro, who said his fondest memory of Our Lady of Lourdes was watching Gunsmoke with Fr. Comaskey, served as assistant from 1954 to 1958.


In his first homily as Pastor, Fr. Comaskey told parishioners about his reputation for paying off debts.  At Our Lady of Lourdes, paying down a $100,000 debt, completing the basement church, and building a rectory were challenges that lay before him.  Taking up two Sunday collections and requiring social event profits be turned over to the parish, including money raised by the Teen Club, he paid off the debt by 1958.  He then asked an architect to draw up plans for a new church, rectory, school, and convent.  


However, as the government dismantled military housing, the number of children markedly decreased.  Moreover, Catholic parents often sent their children to Catholic schools in Washington, D.C.   Nonetheless, Father Comaskey wrote Bishop John J. Russell, the new Bishop of Richmond, for permission to build a school on 700 acres of undeveloped nearby land.  Apparently, the response was negative.  However, the parish was large enough to justify a new church.   


After Fr. Naro’s transfer, Fr. Howard Harris was appointed associate from 1958 to 1959, and Fr. William Connolly served the parish briefly in 1961.  From 1961 to 1967, Fr. Comaskey had to go it alone, getting help from local religious priests.


In 1961, Fr. Comaskey purchased the remaining lot along 24th Street.  Architects T.J. Collins and Sons from Staunton, in conjunction with Collins-Kronstadt and Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland designed a mid-century modern church.   The church was to be windowless, which, in Fr. Comaskey’s opinion, would invite a prayerful sense of leaving the outside world.  The baptistry would be situated beneath the bell tower.  After getting the Bishop’s approval, he obtained a building permit from the County on September 26, 1962. 


Parishioners helped with fundraising.  Benefactors who gave more than $300 would be memorialized on plaques that still hang in the hallway near Mary’s grotto.   By the spring of 1963, construction was underway.  The church was completed before Christmas.  The Midnight Christmas Mass of 1963 was the new church’s first Mass, celebrated by Fr. Comaskey, assisted by an army of altar boys and a girls’ choir in white robes.  The church was packed.   However, there was no heat yet.  A makeshift heater and large fan were placed in the grotto hallway, blowing hot air into the congregation. The following spring, the relief statues of Mary and Saint Bernadette and of Saint Joseph and Jesus were affixed to the walls on either side of the altar.  The choir sang behind the screen reredos.  


Bishop Russell dedicated the church on March 7, 1964 with twenty-five priests and many parishioners in attendance. The Washington Post and The Washington Star ran pictured articles about the dedication, in which Fr. Comaskey noted that the $430,000 church was fully paid for.  On March 13, 1964 The Catholic Virginian ran a headline: “Bishop Blesses Unusual Church.”  The March 7 edition of The Washington Post reported that it was “architecturally interesting.”  Not without pretention, the Post reported, “Perhaps the outstanding feature of the new church in Virginia Highlands, when viewed from the outside, is its oblong windowless walls. Bricks jut out an inch at irregular intervals and the coloring varies from light tans, about the shade of chamois, to occasional bricks as dark as the maple leaves that fall from the maple tree at its northwest corner.”  The Altar was a white marble block supported by granite, reflecting the canopy lights above.  The Post reported, “The interior is dim and restful.  But during the sacrifice of the Mass, a blaze of light bathes the altar.  Over it hangs a chandelier with 200 pendant lights, each torchlike and with a perforated stem shooting like diamonds.”  In Fr. Comaskey’s telling, “People come from all over the world and they’re all in amazement.”  At that time, the interior received outside light through concealed horizontal glass strips.  Father Comaskey noted that the church’s L-shaped design provided a cozy space for smaller weddings and funerals.


When the Second Vatican Council ended on December 8, 1965, Fr. Comaskey moved the baptismal font to the sanctuary.  The former baptistry beneath the bell tower was converted into a devotional Mary grotto, which was adorned with a painting of the Blessed Mother (now hanging in the corridor to the Mary grotto).  The Altar was moved forward and made freestanding.  The tabernacle was moved to the Altar’s left, and the celebrant’s chair was placed on the right.


Today, the Altar contains a relic of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, though there are no known records verifying which relic was originally in the Altars of either the 1939 or the 1963 churches.  An old Altar stone still exists, perhaps from the original 1939 church, which may contain a relic.  


By the end of 1966, parishioners had paid off their pledges.  However, Fr. Comaskey had to raise more money for a rectory and parish hall.   At first, he asked people to increase their offertory giving and continued taking up two Sunday collections.  Contributions increased only slightly.  Tired of burdening parishioners, Fr. Comaskey had an architect design a simple $100,000 rectory.  When he showed the plans to the Parish Advisory Board, they thought it was too small and needed a basement.  They advised better living quarters, even if it cost up to $160,000.  After consulting the diocese, the architects added a basement.  The Advisory Board still thought it too small and considered writing Bishop Russell.  However, they approved the plans. Construction began in August 1969, and the rectory was completed in early 1970 at a cost of $161,370.  The Women's Council donated dinnerware, glassware, and linens. 


In July 1970, Fr. Comaskey obtained a permit to complete the Parish Hall and its kitchen for $150,000.  By May 1971, it was completed, and the kitchen appliances were ready to use.  The County approved it for use that November.


Changing Times


In the early 1960s, while Fr. Comaskey was building the new mid-century modern church, the Second Vatican Council (October 11, 1962 – December 8, 1965) was underway.  The Catholic Church was confidently adjusting its unchanging mission to a fast-changing world.  But history is marked by unforeseen events that turn tables.  American society was on the verge of a disorienting social “revolution” that called into question the “God and country” values that had hitherto been presumed.   President John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Catholic President, was assassinated on November 22, 1963 – little more than a month before the first Christmas Eve Mass was said in the new church.  The Beatles rocked the youth culture with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964, about a month before Bishop Russell dedicated the new church.  In the years to follow, President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam conflict while expanding federal poverty and social programs.  The Civil Rights movement gained momentum.  The U.S. Supreme Court was forging an assertively secular legal framework for American culture.  It was an electric and televised world, involving everyone in everything.  The changing environment and new sensibilities were challenging the outlook and faith of Catholics everywhere, including seminarians, clergy and consecrated religious.  It was, all at once, an era of brave optimism and disillusionment.  Our Lady of Lourdes, like parishes everywhere, had to navigate this new world in ways that some found painful and others found hopeful. 


In 1967, Fr. Comaskey was assigned an assistant priest, Fr. J. Anthony Warner, for the first time since 1961.  When in his late twenties, Fr. Warner was ordained at the Cathedral in Richmond on May 1, 1963.   His first assignment was Holy Trinity in Norfolk, at which time he also served on the Richmond Diocesan Council, first on the Social Development Committee, which dealt with the issues of poverty, fair housing, and racism. He later served as the Diocesan Moderator for the Laity.  When he was assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes in 1967 – just when the “Summer of Love” was coming together in San Francisco – he was charged with implementing what was perceived, at the time, to be the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. 


Fr. Warner did quite a bit of reorganizing.  In 1968, he changed the name of the Women's Sodality to the Women's Council, and he had a new constitution written up, to boot.  He established a Men's Council.  He reorganized the parish Advisory Board.  Moreover, he oversaw liturgical and other changes, such as the new Easter Vigil Mass, baptisms during Mass, home Masses, Sunday evening folk Masses for youth, communal penance services, ecumenical prayers, and – last but not least – commercially published bulletins.  Some senior parishioners wanted a group of their own, so Fr. Warner started the Friendship Club which involved socials and bingo.  Fr. Warner also had Our Lady of Lourdes participate in the FISH (For Immediate Sympathetic Help) program, an ecumenical outreach which provided emergency assistance to the needy.


In 1972, Fr. Comaskey announced his retirement.  He remained in-residence until 1988, when he moved back to Ireland and passed away on December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.  Also in 1972, Fr. Warner was transferred to St. Bede’s in Williamsburg.  That year was the end of an era for Our Lady of Lourdes.  However, a new era had been taking shape for some time, with changes underway in the local area, the country, the world, and the Church.


Fr. Comaskey’s retirement came in a year of historical landmarks that defined the 1970s.  In 1972, President Richard Nixon met with Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong, signed an anti-ballistic missile Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) pact with the Soviet Union, stopped sending draftees to Vietnam, and began the process of “Vietnamization” of that conflict (though U.S. forces resumed bombing after a fresh North Vietnamese offensive).  Domestically, the Watergate break-ins occurred, and Nixon won a second term to the White House in a landslide.  In January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered the infamous Roe vs. Wade decision, overturning state laws protecting the unborn.  That ruling would influence much of the Catholic Church’s mission at a time when it was also grappling with conflicting ideas about the Second Vatican Council.


The Crystal City Era


When Fr. Comaskey arrived in 1954, the area around Our Lady of Lourdes was a mix of single-family homes and open lots, ripe for development.  As the federal government was expanding amidst a post-war baby boom (1945-1961) families with children were moving to the nation’s capital and surrounding areas.  In 1967, the year Fr. Warner arrived, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) was formed to build a regional transportation system.  Metro started building railways in 1969, and it purchased four bus systems in 1973.  The rail system’s first phase started in 1976.   Metro undergirded decades of local urban planning – which is still going on today – which affected the parishioner makeup of Our Lady of Lourdes and nearby parishes. 


In the 1950s, the area along Highway 1 and National Airport was a hodge-podge of junkyards, cheap motels, industrial sites, warehouses, storage yards, iron fabricating factories, an aged ice-skating rink, and a drive-in theatre.  In the early 1960s, developer Robert H. Smith noted the area’s potential: its proximity to National Airport, the Pentagon, and Washington, D.C.  He planned a development of office buildings, apartments, hotels and retailers along the corridor.   Named after the Crystal House apartments on 1900 S. Eads Street – the area’s first luxury apartment complex, built in 1965 – he branded the area “Crystal City.”   In the late 1960s, the U.S. Patent Office and the Institute of Defense Analysis opened offices in Crystal City.  In July 1977, the Crystal City Metro station opened and, shortly thereafter, a Virginia Railway Express (VRE) station.


Pentagon City has a similar story.  After World War II, it was mostly vacant lots and industrial sites.  In 1946, the year Our Lady of Lourdes was made a parish, the Cafritz and Tompkins families acquired 190 acres of the Pentagon City area.  In the early 1970s, planners foresaw a high-density development along the corridor between the Crystal City and Pentagon City Metro stations.  In February 1976, the County approved a mixed-use development of office and commercial space, hotels, apartments, a nursing and retirement home and shopping outlets.  Like Crystal City, the Pentagon City development would impact the parishioner makeup and mission of Our Lady of Lourdes.


A New Diocese


Meanwhile, the Priests’ Council of the Diocese of Richmond was discussing the idea of carving out a new diocese in Northern Virginia, where the population was growing.  Moreover, there were differing outlooks about the Second Vatican Council between the clergy of the northern and southern parts of the diocese.  Msgr. Justin D. McLunn, pastor of Saint Louis in Groveton, chaired a committee of priests that wished to petition for a new diocese.  After meeting with the Apostolic Nuncio, Luigi Cardinal Raimundi, Msgr. McClunn’s committee submitted the petition, dated September 18, 1972, to Pope Paul VI via Bishop Russell.  The letter was signed by Msgr. McClunn, Msgr. Thomas Scannell, Msgr. Paul Heller, and Msgr. Harold Nott.  Moreover, it was endorsed by 38 pastors and 22 vicars.  Bishop Russell and his consultors agreed to forward the petition to Cardinal Raimundi, who sent it to the Holy See in late 1972.  However, Bishop Russell retired on April 28, 1973; and Cardinal Raimundi was replaced by a new Apostolic Nuncio, Jean Cardinal Jadot.  Msgr. McLunn’s committee wrote again to the new Nuncio on August 23, 1973, requesting that their petition be submitted to the Holy See. 


On May 28, 1974, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Letter to Cardinal Jadot, directing him to arrange for the establishment of the Diocese of Arlington.  A Mass of Installation was celebrated for Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, the diocese’s first Bishop, on August 13, 1974.  Monsignor Richard Burke, who would later become pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes, was the diocese’s first Chancellor.


With the development of Crystal City and Pentagon City, new people moving in, the retirement of Fr. Comaskey, and the establishment of the Diocese of Arlington, a new era for Our Lady of Lourdes had clearly begun.  Father John O'Connell was appointed Pastor in 1972, though a new assistant was not immediately assigned.  Fr. Comaskey continued to live in-residence and celebrated the early weekday Mass.  


In June 1974, the newly ordained Fr. Horace “Tuck” Grinnell was appointed as the first vicar since Fr. Warner’s departure.  He was the last priest assigned to Our Lady of Lourdes by the Bishop of Richmond.  He said the Sunday Noon folk Mass, moderated the Young Adults Group and the Catholic Youth Organization, led two Scripture study prayer groups, and started a charismatic prayer group for new federal workers in Crystal City. 


On May 10, 1975, Bishop Welsh ordained Fr. Robert Avella, the first priest ordained for the Diocese of Arlington.  Though his first assignment would be St. Ambrose in Annandale, little did Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners know that, in 2006, he would become their beloved Pastor. 


As American forces withdrew from Vietnam in the mid-70s, the U.S. welcomed many Vietnamese refugees.  Bishop Welsh prioritized helping the new arrivals.  In 1975, Our Lady of Lourdes adopted a Vietnamese family and housed them at 801 24th Street – the former housekeeper’s quarters.  The effort cost between $8,000 and $10,000 a year.  Calvary United Methodist Church also adopted a Catholic Vietnamese family.   A few years later, a Vietnamese Mass was celebrated at Our Lady of Lourdes every fourth Sunday of the month. 


During Fr. O’Connell’s time, he hosted luncheons for the pastors of neighboring Protestant churches as well as ecumenical Bible studies.  In 1975, Pope Paul VI declared a Holy Year of renewal and reconciliation.  A plenary indulgence was granted to pilgrims who travelled to Rome or to designated churches, including the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners often visited the Shrine to obtain the indulgence.  Also, Fr. O'Connell took 21 parishioners to Rome for the canonization of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton.   To this day, there is a relic of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Altar, though it is not clear if the relic was obtained on that occasion.  


In Lent of 1975, Fr. O’Connell started a daily Noon Mass for Crystal City workers that is still popular to this day.   In Lent of 1976, face-to-face confessions were introduced. Fr. O'Connell also started parent-centered sacramental preparation programs, adult education lectures, and Right-to-Life involvement.  The Women's Council hosted potluck suppers, bridge games, bake sales, an October bizarre, a November clothing drive for the poor, and square dance lessons in the Parish Hall.  In June 1976, Fr. O'Connell was reassigned to Saint Ann's in north Arlington, and Fr. Charles W. Gerloff of Sacred Heart in Winchester was transferred to Our Lady of Lourdes. 


Other priests who served at that time were Fr. Edward McLean (1976-1977), who administered the diocese’s prison ministry; and Fr. William Reinecke, who was in-residence briefly in 1976 and again in 1980.   In 1977, Fr. Grinnell was transferred to Saint Louis parish and pursued postgraduate studies at Catholic University.  Fr. Mark Pilon served as vicar from 1977-1979.


Teen CCD attendance dropped in the late 1970s as society became less religious, and families became smaller and more transient.  Some local youth attended Saint Rita’s School and Bishop Ireton High School.  However, ecumenical activities flourished, with the parish’s continued participation in the FISH program, Meals-on-Wheels, vacation Bible school, and a consortium of 23rd Street churches called Interaction of Christian Effort, which involved prayer services, basketball games, and Christmas caroling for youth.   Adult education flourished, as clergy and notable scholars – Dr. Germaine Grisez, Dr. William May, Fr. James Schall, S.J., to name a few – gave lectures in the Parish Hall.  Our Lady of Lourdes participated annually in the March for Life.   In 1978, the Carriage Hill nursing home opened.  Priests offered First Friday Masses there, and parishioners held weekly communion services and social events.


Pope Paul VI died at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1978.  Cardinal Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, was elected Pope and installed as Pope John Paul on August 26.   However, he died thirty-three days later.  A new conclave was held, and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, Archbishop of Krakow, Poland, was elected.  He was installed as Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978.  


In the U.S., the early 1980s ended the Vietnam era and ushered in the Reagan “revolution.”  At that time, more and more American parishes were getting involved in the Right-to-Life movement.  More remotely, the Church was entangled in political and social conflicts in Central America as death-squads, often government sponsored, killed priests and missionaries who were working with the poor.   Moreover, in the 1980s, Pope John Paul II was clarifying the Church’s mission and doctrine in light of Vatican II.


In 1983, the year a future Pastor graduated high school, Fr. Gerloff was transferred to Queen of Apostles, and Msgr. Richard Burke was appointed Pastor.  Msgr. Burke had been the first Chancellor of the Arlington Diocese.  That position was assigned to Msgr. William Reinecke in 1983.  When Msgr. Burke arrived in April of that year, he sought to pay off some debts and repair leaks and decaying facilities.  He sold the 801 and 807 24th Street properties, which were being rented.  The contract of sale stipulated that Our Lady of Lourdes had first right of refusal should the properties go back on the market. 


In 1984, Pope John Paul II transferred Bishop Welsh to Allentown, Pennsylvania.   The Very Reverend John R. Keating, the Vicar General and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was appointed Arlington’s Bishop on June 17, 1984 and ordained Bishop on August 4. 


Throughout the 1980s, Our Lady of Lourdes had several vicars or in-residence priests.  They were Fr. James Buckley (1983-84), Fr. Robert Avella (1984-85) who would one day become Pastor, Fr. Vincent Heald (1985-1994), Fr. Franklyn McAfee (1985-1988), Fr. John Trong (1987-1988), and Fr. Robert Rippy (1988-1998).  Fr. Comaskey remained in residence until January 1988, when he returned to Ireland to spend the last year of his life with relatives.


Noting sparse attendance at certain Masses, Msgr. Burke reduced the number of Masses from four to three, making it easier for CCD students to attend Mass with their families before or after class.  He also asked the managers of some local high-rise apartments for permission to offer Mass on their properties for elderly residents.   That request was denied.


An active Young Adults Group formed in the early 1980s, with the support of Msgr. Burke and Fr. Avella; and it thrived throughout the decade.   In 1984, the Young Adults Group’s first president was Joe Fischetti, who is still a parishioner; and Dale Shaw was vice-president.   However, Joe soon started law school, so Dale became president and would remain so until the group ended.  The group did dinner and brunch outings, attended plays, held coffee and doughnut hours, and attended lectures and retreats.  Throughout the 1980s, the group had a core of about 25 people, though some events would attract between 40-80 people.   With key members getting older and dwindling membership, it ended in 1992.


Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, adult education presentations thrived.  Local clergy and scholars continued to give lectures on various religious and secular topics of interest to Catholics.


In the late 1980s, Msgr. Burke had plans for church beautification, which included adding stained glass windows.  However, in August 1987, he was seriously injured in a car accident while vacationing in Ireland.  Part of one leg had to be amputated, and the healing process required that he remain in Ireland until November.  Bishop Keating assigned Fr. John Trong to cover priestly duties while Msgr. Burke was absent.  Nonetheless, Msgr. Burke moved forward with church beautification.  Parishioners were enthusiastic and donated over $40,000 for the project.  Also, a couple of large anonymous gifts were made.  The Marian stained-glass rose window was added to the transept.  Small stained-glass windows – depicting the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Finding Jesus in the Temple, Good Shepherd, Sacred Heart, Crucifixion, and Resurrection – lined the nave. 


During the renovations, someone broke into the church and tried to pry open the Tabernacle, damaging to the lock.  Fortunately, the intruder couldn’t open it.  A new Tabernacle, with an Ark of the Covenant motif, was purchased.  Moreover, a new floor-to-ceiling stained-glass window, with a symbol of the Eucharist, was added to the left of the Tabernacle, shedding light upon it.  Another floor-to-ceiling window, to the right of the Altar, was replaced with an image of the Holy Spirit’s descent.  The vestibule was enlarged, and its wall was made into a large stained-glass image of the Blessed Mother.  Meanwhile, the choir raised funds for a new organ.  In the early 1990s, beautification was completed. Using funds from an anonymous donor, Msgr. Burke purchased a life size statue of Our Lady of Lourdes for the Mary shrine.  New stained-glass was added to the Mary grotto, depicting Christ’s Baptism and Ascension and Mary’s Assumption and Coronation as Queen of Heaven and Earth.


In the summer of 1988, a young UVA graduate student had a job at the U.S.  Department of Agriculture on Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., and he sublet a room from a friend at the Crystal House apartments.  He recalls attending Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes celebrated by Msgr. Burke and Fr. Rippy.   It never occurred to him that he would be Pastor there someday.


Shortly before retirement, Msgr. Burke started a 5:00 PM Spanish Mass for the growing number of Hispanic Catholics.  The first Spanish Mass was celebrated on Mother's Day, May 10, 1992, by Fr. Jose Maria Ambros, a member the Diocesan Laborers Priests in Washington, D.C.  The Spanish Mass was often said by other priests from that community, such as Frs. Ovidio Pecharroman, Rutilio del Riego, and Juan Garcia.  Fr. Ambros organized some parishioners to assist, which included America and Gilberto Flores, and Ana and Perfecto Rivera.  Ana Rivera is still the point of contact for the parish’s Hispanic community.  The group passed out flyers in apartments and neighborhoods where many of the Hispanics lived.  In October 1992, Fr. Ambros started a Spanish prayer group with the help of Juan Osoria, Julia and Luis Campos, Olimpia Benitez, and Maria Bonilla.       


In 1992, Fr. Rippy, who had been a parochial vicar, was made Chancellor of the diocese but remained in-residence.  Fr. William Saunders was made vicar after completing a doctorate at Catholic University. 


Msgr. Burke retired in 1993 and, on June 6, was succeeded by Fr. John O'Hara, who had been Director of Catholic Charities.  The Hispanic community continued to thrive.  The Young Adults Group had a brief revival in 1994-1995.  The Women’s Council held activities such as the Wednesday Lenten Soup Kitchen and a Father’s Day Breakfast.    Moreover, they set up a Mary Caffi Scholarship Fund to help parents send their children to Catholic schools.  The Men’s Council hosted coffee and doughnuts after Sunday Masses, a St. Patrick’s Day dinner, a Mother’s Day breakfast, spaghetti dinners, and a barbeque to raise funds for the parish’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 1996.  Our Lady of Lourdes continued to be active in the Right-to-Life movement, participating in the annual March for Life.   In June 1994, about 460 parishioners signed a petition against mandatory abortion funding.   Also, in that year, the English version of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church was published.  Our Lady of Lourdes held a series of talks on the Catechism by Fr. Robert Bradley, Fr. William Saunders, and Fr. Paul DeLadurantaye.  


Our Lady of Lourdes celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1996.  The Jubilee’s theme was the subscript under the title of Fr. Charles Ryan’s 1952 pamphlet on this history of Our Lady of Lourdes: “To Jesus through Mary.”  The Jubilee Committee members were Bob and Kay Dahms, Carole Delong, Rose Demma, Marie Hopkins, John O’Neill, Patricia O’Rourke, Marguerite Savard, Geraldine Schuman, Theresa Tieso, and Marian Walsh – some whom are still parishioners.   The yearlong celebration included a series of dinners and social activities, talks and presentations, and pilgrimages to the Lourdes Grotto and Seton Shrine in Emmitsburg, Maryland.


In 1997, Fr. O'Hara was transferred, and Fr. Rippy, who was in-residence, became the new Pastor while serving as diocesan Chancellor.  Fr. Rippy would be Pastor through some major events in the Church and the world.  In 1998, Bishop Keating suddenly passed away while in Rome.  The Pope assigned Paul S. Loverde, the Bishop of Ogdensburg, New York, to be the diocese’s new shepherd in 1999.  Then came the new millennium, for which Pope John Paul II called upon the church to “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4), laying the groundwork for a new evangelization.   Several vicars were assigned during his time:  Fr. Robert Lange (1995-1998), Fr. David Rahn (1998-2001), Fr. Francis DeRosa (2001-2004), Fr. John O’Donohue (2004-2008).


The 21st Century


On September 11, 2001, less than eight months after George W. Bush was sworn in as 43rd President of the United States, Al-Qaeda terrorists coordinated the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.   American Airlines #11, a Boeing 767, departed Boston at 7:59 AM en route to Los Angeles.  Fifteen minutes later, at 8:14 AM, United #175, another Boeing 767, also departed Boston for Los Angeles.  At 8:20 AM, American #77, a Boeing 757, left Washington Dulles International Airport en route to Los Angeles.   At 8:42 AM, United #93, a Boeing 757, departed Newark International Airport en route to San Francisco.  All four planes were hijacked shortly after takeoff.  Only four minutes after United #93 left Newark, the terrorists crashed American #11 into the north face of North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City at 8:46 AM.  Shortly afterwards, United #175 was crashed into the south face of the South Tower at 9:03 AM. 


At around 9:30 AM, Fr. Steve McGraw, a newly ordained vicar at Saint Anthony's in Falls Church, was on his way to a burial at Arlington Cemetery.   After taking a wrong turn, he got stuck in traffic on Route 27 near the west façade of the Pentagon.  At 9:37 AM, he saw a commercial airliner fly low near his car, clip a light pole, and crash into the building.  He was not aware of the attacks in New York and thought it was an accident.  It was American #77.  He grabbed his purple stole and book and bolted from his car to anoint and pray over the burnt victims fleeing the Pentagon.  


As television reporters were covering the New York attacks outside the White House, they saw black smoke billowing in the background.  This created confusion, as they were not yet aware that the Pentagon had been attacked.   Meanwhile, the passengers on United #93 tried to wrest control of the plane from the hijackers, as they had received word, via cell phones, that they may be headed for the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  In their heroic attempt, the plane crashed at 10:03 AM in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania.


The Pentagon is about a mile from Our Lady of Lourdes and within the parish boundaries.   Many people in Aurora Hills and Crystal City heard the crash, including Fr. Francis DeRosa, vicar at Our Lady Lourdes.   He soon joined Fr. McGraw.  Together, the priests prayed the Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and they were brought to the inner courtyard of the Pentagon to console the survivors.  At 5:00PM, rescue efforts had ended, and the priests went home. 


After September 11, a series of international events took place, affecting the parishioner makeup of Our Lady of Lourdes.   On October 7, 2001, the U.S. and allies invaded Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power and denying Al Qaeda a safe base in that country.   In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq as part of the “war on terror,” though without apparent material connection to the September 11 attacks.   Our Lady of Lourdes was home to many American personnel who served in the 20-year war in Afghanistan, which is ending this year, as well as in the Iraq war.  Also, after September 11, some Department of Defense offices moved out of Crystal City, apparently for security reasons, affecting the parishioner makeup.  Nonetheless, due to the prevalence of military and governmental work in the area, the parish was more and more becoming a brief home for many families and individuals who were passing through, staying a few years before being transferred again.   Military families often move in from or move to California, among other places.


In 2004, Fr. Jerome Magat, who would serve as vicar at Our Lady of Lourdes, founded the Guadeloupe Free Clinic in Colonial Beach, VA, where, at the time, 25% of the populace lived at or below poverty level and 30-40% had no medical insurance.   To this day, the Clinic is on the grounds of St. Elizabeth of Hungary parish in Colonial Beach, whose Pastor is Fr. DeRosa, a former vicar of Our Lady of Lourdes. 


In April 2005, Pope John Paul II passed away, and Pope Benedict XVI was made Peter’s Successor.   The following June, Fr. Rippy was appointed Rector of the Cathedral, and Fr. David Whitestone was made Administrator.  In 2006, Fr. Robert Avella was made Pastor, and he would remain so until his retirement in 2020.  In 2008-2009, Frs. Richard Ley and Jerome Magat served as vicars.  


When Fr. Paul Berghout was appointed vicar in 2010, Crystal City was changing again. Plans were underway to make the area more attractive to pedestrians and small businesses.   When Fr. Berghout started his duties in the marriage Tribunal of the diocese in 2013, he remained in-residence and is still so to this day. 


In 2014, Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy, the first Pope to voluntarily do so since Celestine V in 1294.  Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, was elected as the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere, taking the name Francis. 


Back at Our Lady of Lourdes, Fr. Ronald Gripshover served as vicar from 2013-2015, before being appointed Pastor of St. Lawrence.   Fr John Melmer was vicar from 2015-2018.  Fr Joseph Kenna was made vicar in 2018, and he holds that office.   


The Beginning of the National Landing Era


In 2018, with the prospect of Amazon establishing a new headquarters in Crystal City, local government and business leaders were making plans to integrate the neighborhoods of Crystal City, Pentagon City, and Potomac Yard into one walkable downtown, rebranded as National Landing.  It is designed to be “the most connected downtown in America” built by a joint private-public sector infusion of more than $4 billion into a transportation network for residents, employees, students, and tourists.  The Route 1 corridor is being “reimagined” to become a “multi-modal, pedestrian-friendly, and urban-oriented boulevard” lined with small businesses.  It is foreseen to be “Virginia’s largest downtown,” with 26,000 residents, 5,500 hotel rooms, more than 450 shops and restaurants with walkability to Ronald Reagan National Airport, Metrorail, commuter rail, busses, rideshare, and biking.  National Landing is also home to a new Virginia Tech Innovation Campus.  


In November 2018, Amazon announced the building of a new company headquarters, known as HQ2, in Crystal City.   CEO Jeff Bezos said that Crystal City “will allow us to attract world-class talent that will help us to continue inventing for customers for years to come.”  The Washington Post, which was purchased by Amazon in 2013, opined that this decision “cements Northern Virginia's reputation as a magnet for business and will potentially reshape the Washington region into an eastern outpost of Silicon Valley over the next decade.”  It is anticipated that this will create 25,000 local jobs, with wages averaging $150,000.  Our Lady of Lourdes is currently feeling the impact of this, with several Amazon employees and people in the technology businesses having recently registered in the parish.


Seventy-Five Years


In 2018, Fr. Avella had hip surgery.  While in recovery, Bishop Burbidge visited him to give the “good news” that the pope had named him a Monsignor, with its more formal name, Chaplain to his Holiness. “That’s kind of like being a parish priest to the pope,” said Msgr. Avella, “who I’ll never see but I can pray for daily in a personal way.”   


Msgr. Avella retired in June 2020 after serving as a beloved Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes for fourteen years, a tenure second only to that of Fr. Comaskey.  Shortly after moving to the St. Rose of Lima retirement home for priests, it was discovered that he had advanced cancer.  After much suffering, he died in Christ’s peace on November 18, 2020.


Fr. Avella retired when much of the country and the Commonwealth of Virginia were, in large measure, in a COVID-19 shutdown.   In March 2020, Masses were suspended at Our Lady of Lourdes, as they had been throughout the diocese and much of the country.    However, things slowly began to open up not long after Fr. Frederick Edlefsen, who was transferred from St. Agnes in north Arlington, became the parish’s new Pastor.   In the spring of 2021, COVID rates dropped steadily in Virginia.  As of May 28, 2021, the parish was completely opened up; all social distancing and mask-wearing protocols had been ended, and Parish Hall activities were permitted to resume with full attendance.


Msgr. Avella’s obituary, posted online by Arlington Catholic Herald on November 19, 2020, sums up his life in the context of Christ’s priesthood and its work in the Diocese of Arlington, of which he was the first priest to be ordained.  It is also a testimony to the good shepherd that Providence has given this parish, for which all should feel a debt of gratitude.   This recalls the words of Fr. Ryan, who served as vicar from 1950-1955, in his first and brief history of the parish: “It is an event the full effects of which cannot be measured by men or time, but rather it looks to God and to his Recording Angel to evaluate properly the full effects of a command that was whispered low by one consecrated to God for the service of his people.”  As a most fitting conclusion to this historical account on the 75th Anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes parish, I leave you with the words of Msgr. Avella’s obituary in the Arlington Catholic Herald:


Msgr. Avella was born May 11, 1949, in Washington, to Gennaro and Anne Avella, who soon afterward moved their family to Arlington.  He grew up near Ft. Myer military base and Arlington Cemetery, and he and his siblings could hear the evening taps being played. "We (in the Arlington diocese) have a special responsibility to pray for the men and women in the military, and their souls are entrusted to us, both in times of peace and war," he told the Catholic Herald in an interview in 1999.  Msgr. Avella attended St. Charles School and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington for one year. He completed his secondary education at St. John Vianney School in Richmond, a minor seminary. He attended St. Mary’s Seminary and St. Mary’s University, both in Baltimore, graduating in 1975. He was ordained to the priesthood May 10, 1975, by Bishop Thomas J. Welsh, the first bishop of Arlington.   His earliest post in the diocese was as parochial vicar of St. Ambrose Church in Annandale (1975-78); he then served at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington (1978-79). He was assistant principal and chaplain at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington while in residence at St. Agnes Church in Arlington (1985-89), when he was named pastor of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, where he remained for more than a decade.  In June 2000, he became pastor of St. Mary Church (now the Basilica of Saint Mary) in Alexandria and was named Bishop’s Delegate for the Clergy. He served as rector of the cathedral from Nov. 24, 2003, through Feb. 16, 2005; and as pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Arlington from June 28, 2006, until his retirement in June 2020.  Over the years, Msgr. Avella served in many diocesan positions, including twice as director of vocations, (1978-85; 2003-04). He served on the presbyteral council (1995-97; 2010-14), the committee on priests’ retirement (four terms: 2000-14), the clergy personnel board (three terms: 1992-2006), the diocesan school board (2007-10), and the committee on the priest’s retirement facility (2007-10).
He lived in the bishop’s residence from 1979 to 1984, with both Bishop Welsh and Bishop John R. Keating. …. Long into his priesthood, he would still say he aspired "to become a good priest," as he believed he had only just begun.  From his earliest days, he said, "I have really admired and been edified by the priests in this diocese," many of whom “are now gone to God."  


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