Basilica of Saint Mary



Founding Pastor: Fr. Francis Ignatius Neale, SJ
Parish Founded: 1795
Church Dedication: 1827
Additional Dates of Importance:  In 1810, the parish moved to its present location in the heart of the city at 310 South Royal Street. In 1826, Rev. Father Joseph W. Fairclough, pastor, erected the sanctuary and the major portion of the present church at its current location: 310 South Royal Street. The school was founded in 1869.

School Information:

Basilica of Saint Mary School
Founded: 1869
Founding Pastor:  Fr. Peter Kroes, SJ

When the Sisters of the Holy Cross opened Saint Mary Academy in 1869, the pastor made an agreement with the sisters that they would also help fulfill the need for a free parish school. That same year, two sisters started Saint Mary Catholic School-a free school for all parish children. At first, the school operated from Saint Mary Hall, a large brick building at the corner of Royal and Wolfe Streets (today it is a parking lot). In 1870, there were 20 girls and 20 boys enrolled. The girls and boys each had separate classrooms. The only plumbing was outdoors. School population swelled, and, by the 1940s, sixth and seventh graders began to attend their classes in the Lyceum on Duke Street. At that time, the school was still free, being underwritten by parish contributions. Wartime restrictions prevented the construction of new school space, but, by the end of World War II, plans were firmly in place for expansion. A large plot of land, originally purchased for the expansion of Saint Mary Cemetery, became the site of what is today's school at 400 Green Street. Construction on the "new" school began in 1948; moving day was March 1, 1950. The school had 12 classrooms, a library, principal's office, teachers' lounge, clinic, cafeteria and multi-purpose room. Enrollment that year was 512 students-and growing. The population peaked in 1962-1963 when there were 1,170 students. The west wing of the school was added in 1952, with five classrooms and a kindergarten. Until then, the school was staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. By 1954, lay teachers were hired, and a new convent was constructed adjacent to the school for the teaching sisters. The new convent was the sisters' residence until it was converted to a junior high in the mid-1990s. This building, known as Stephens Hall, was renovated again in 2011, becoming today's middle school for grades 6-8. Additional changes and improvements to the school also included the building of Msgr. Wingler-Ella Hill Hall (also known as "the gym"). A large portion of the costs of construction were covered by a generous donation from lifelong parishioner, Miss Ella Hill. Upon her death, she had willed her house on Lee Street to the parish, and the pastor, Father Wingler, earmarked the profits from the sale of her house for the construction of the gym. To advance and deliver better the school's academic curriculum and ensure the students are equipped with 21st-century learning tools and experiences, and to provide the growing parishioner base with greater opportunities to engage with one another, the school has embarked on a visionary campus and facilities renovation and expansion project, due to be completed by December 2022, which includes an 8,000-square-foot library media center, new outdoor recreational spaces and parking, as well as improvements to the interior of the school.

Cemetery Information:

Saint Mary Cemetery
Founded: 1795
Interred: More than 6,000 

What Makes This Parish Unique?

Over the years, as our nation grew, so did the influence of the Church of Saint Mary, solidly establishing Catholicism throughout this region. Saint Mary's history is intertwined with the founding of our nation and our God-given freedom to practice our Catholic faith. For more than 225 years, the parishioners have led the way in faith for the community, building on the legacy of the prayers and sacrifices of those who have gone before them.

Designation as a minor basilica began a new chapter in Saint Mary's parish history. It brings honor not only to the parish, but to the Diocese of Arlington and to Roman Catholics throughout the country. As one of more than 85 minor basilicas in the United States, it has a special relationship to the Holy See and to the Holy Father in Rome. This relationship is represented by the ombrellino, tintinnabulum, papal cross keys, and the basilica seal. The parish continues to be a lively and vibrant Catholic community, united in celebrating the Eucharist through reverent liturgies.

As articulated by their motto, “Cum Petro Ad Jesum Per Mariam” (“With Peter to Jesus Through Mary”), parishioners seek to unite themselves to Jesus through Mary, guided by the Magisterial teaching of the Church, and  believe in the universal call to Holiness: that every human person is called to be a saint. With a friendly and welcoming outreach to the less fortunate, especially through the parish's Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, parishioners share their Faith and evangelize the community through worship, education, service and fellowship. What also makes the parish special is the Basilica School of Saint Mary. Founded in 1869, it is the oldest Catholic school, with the largest enrollment (715 students in 2021), in the Diocese and region.

Parish History:

The Basilica of Saint Mary is the oldest Catholic church in Virginia. The date of its founding is April 10, 1795. Fr. John Thayer, a missionary, visited the Catholics in Alexandria that day and subsequently wrote to Bishop John Carroll, forwarding their urgent request for a church, which the bishop approved. But the roots of Saint Mary Church are much deeper. In the colonial period, it was illegal for Catholics to worship publicly. They were forbidden to vote or hold public office. Despite these restrictions, a number of Catholics lived in Alexandria. Some were the descendants of Maryland's original Catholic settlers, others were Irish and English immigrant tradesmen, and a sizeable number were enslaved persons and free blacks.

Until religious freedom was established in 1776, Catholics met in private homes for Mass whenever a priest came to Alexandria. Col. John Fitzgerald, mayor of Alexandria, an aide and personal friend to George Washington during the Revolutionary War, was a leader of the small flock. He too wrote to Bishop Carroll. During a Saint Patrick's Day party at Fitzgerald's home, a collection was taken up to purchase land for a church. Washington was present and made a sizeable donation. A tract of land was purchased at the south end of Alexandria, near the present Wilson Bridge and Jones Point. A small brick chapel was erected on the site. Fr. Francis Ignatius Neale, SJ, was the founding pastor. Because the location of the chapel was not near the center of town, and difficult to reach, the pastor, Fr. Joseph Fairclough, purchased two adjoining lots between Chapel Alley and South Royal Street.

On July 19, 1826, the cornerstone was laid for what eventually became the current Saint Mary Church building. The parish remained small until the 1840s, when a large number of Irish immigrant laborers arrived, which coincided with Saint Mary becoming the Mother Church of Virginia as it established the earliest of its numerous missions. As the population grew, the church became too small. In 1856, it was greatly expanded. A new marble altar and a very high steeple were added.

After the Civil War, Alexandria slowly returned to normal. The parish thrived. Many new spiritual and benevolent organizations became active in the parish. The Society of Saint Vincent de Paul was chartered by a small group of parish businessmen to help the needy. The church was remodeled and expanded several more times. In 1891, Saint Mary's close association with the Jesuits ended. Fr. Henry Cutler became the first pastor from the Diocese of Richmond. Supported by the newly affluent and generous Irish parishioners, he embarked upon a major expansion and renovation. The church entrance was extended to its present length, a limestone front was added, and the current steeples and belfry were erected. The church now held 1,200 worshipers. Over the years, a number of changes have been made to the church's interior. After Vatican II, much of the remaining ornate Gothic interior was removed, including the side altars and the altar rail. In the last 20 years, the trend has reversed. Saint Mary recently installed a beautiful antique marble altar rail.

As the parish entered the new millennium, Saint Mary was doing well. Numerous spiritual, charitable and social activities continue to be a regular part of the daily parish life. Then, in 2017, Saint Mary received a major honor: On December 6, 2017, Pope Francis designated it to be a minor basilica, an honor bestowed on only a small number of churches. The parish's long history, as well as its long tradition of spirituality and service to the community and the universal Church, were certainly factors in this award. The basilica, currently led by Fr. Edward Hathaway, continues to be a beacon of faith and service. 

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