Saint Louis


Founding Pastor: Fr. Albert P. Campbell
Parish Founded: 1949
Church Dedication: 1962
Additional Dates of Importance:  Sacred Heart Mission Chapel was purchased on May 2, 1925 (the earliest beginnings of Saint Louis Parish). Saint Louis Catholic School was dedicated on September 15, 1956.

School Information:

Saint Louis School
Founded: 1956
Founding Pastor:  Msgr. Eugene P. Walsh

Saint Louis Catholic School was dedicated on September 15, 1956, by Most Rev. Peter L. Ireton, Bishop of Richmond. The new school was run by the Sisters of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis, who came to the parish from Allegany, New York. The school started with four teachers and 185 students in first and second grades. School tuition in the late 1950s was $50 per year for one child, $80 for two children, and $100 for three or more children. By the mid-1960s, school enrollment grew to just more than 1,000 students in first through eighth grades. This large number of students required the use of the old chapel (Walsh Hall) as classroom space. The Home and School League (which eventually became the Parent Teacher Organization) began to make a significant financial impact on the school, growing the school library system with book drives and audio-visual material drives.

At this time, the new pastor was named, Msgr. Justin McClunn. Under his pastoral leadership, the school was first accredited by the Commonwealth of Virginia. This 1968 accreditation required a reduction in class size from an average of more than 50 students per classroom to fewer than 35 students per class. By 1977, the school staff was entirely comprised of laypersons, including a lay principal.

As the importance of early childhood programs grew nationally, principal Daniel Baillargeon saw the need and benefit of a preschool at Saint Louis. Saint Louis Preschool received its county use permit and state child care license, allowing the program to open in September 2012 with the support of the pastor, Rev. Matthew Zuberbueler, and under the directorship of Kathleen McNutt. The preschool wing was dedicated on September 28, 2012, by Most Rev. Paul Loverde, Bishop of Arlington. Today, under the leadership of pastor Rev. Keith O'Hare and principal Anne Dyke, Saint Louis Catholic School is currently at full capacity, with enrollment at 510 students and more than 50 staff members. The school motto is “Rooted in faith and growing in Christ.” Though the school enrollment and physical space have changed over the past 65 years, the mission has remained the same: educating and evangelizing children who live in the southern area of Fairfax County. 

What Makes This Parish Unique?

The present-day parish hall (Msgr. Walsh Hall) boasts a history of over 130 years, as it was originally a one-room schoolhouse constructed in 1888. It was purchased in 1925 by the Diocese of Richmond and named Sacred Heart Mission Chapel. In the 1960s, it was renamed Msgr. Walsh Hall. Of the more than 100 one-room public schools of Fairfax County that operated from 1870 to 1948, seven were located in the Route 1 corridor. The Groveton Schoolhouse (present-day Walsh Hall) is the only one remaining.

In the early 1970s, the pastor of Saint Louis Parish was Msgr. Justin McClunn. Msgr. McClunn successfully invited the papal nuncio in Washington to come to the Saint Louis rectory for a number of private dinners. Msgr. McClunn invited a few other pastors of the Diocese to attend these dinners and join him in asking the papal nuncio to request that the Holy Father create a new diocese here in Northern Virginia. These efforts played some role in the eventual decision of Pope Saint Paul VI to create the Diocese of Arlington in 1974. (The signed letters between Msgr. McClunn and the papal nuncio are in the Saint Louis parish archives.) Diocesan priestly vocations include Fr. Bob Cilinski and Fr. Paul Richardson. Most notable is the vocation of Bishop Ned Shlesinger, who grew up in Saint Louis Parish and graduated from Mount Vernon High School. He went on to serve in the Air Force and then discern a vocation to the priesthood in the Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina. He was ordained a priest in 1996 and to the episcopacy in 2017. He currently serves as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. Bishop Michael Burbidge was one of the co-consecrators for the episcopal ordination.

Parish History:

The first Catholic church in Northern Virginia was built in 1795 (currently the Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria). Saint Mary covered a large area outside the boundaries of the City of Alexandria, including the area south of Old Town and north of Mount Vernon, historically known as Groveton. In the early 1920s, Saint Mary's pastor was Fr. Louis Smet, whose uncle was Most Rev. Augustine Van de Vyver, Bishop of Richmond. Father Smet had been ordained to the priesthood by his uncle at the American College of Louvain, Belgium, in 1905.

As pastor of Saint Mary's, Father Smet took a great interest in the spiritual welfare of the community of Groveton, and he enlisted the help of the Catholic laity there to establish a Sunday school class for the neighborhood children. Father Smet soon also saw the need for a mission church in Groveton. In 1925, the one-room schoolhouse for the children of Groveton was put up for sale. Father Smet asked the Popkins family of Groveton to assist in making the purchase. Mr. Ludwood Ashby Popkins was not Catholic at the time, but his wife Leocadia was a very devout Catholic. On May 2, 1925, the Groveton Schoolhouse was purchased by Mr. Popkins in the name of the Diocese of Richmond and given the name “Sacred Heart Mission Chapel.” At that time, it was located on Route 1 facing Spring Drive. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could now be celebrated monthly, catechism classes could be offered, and the Catholic Faith and the Catholic population grew steadily. Mrs. Katherine Popkins (wife of Earl) and Mrs. Leocadia Popkins (wife of Ludwood) cleaned and prepared the hapel. Their husbands, who would later convert to the Catholic faith, mowed the lawn and maintained the grounds.

Sometime before 1941, the Sacred Heart Mission Chapel was physically moved to its current location (corner of Route 1 and Popkins Lane) under the leadership of Ludwood A. Popkins, who hired a team of horses to pick up the small structure and reposition it. It was moved because a portion of Route 1 was being straightened and the chapel was located in one of the curves. In 1941, the chapel was renamed in honor of Fr. Smet, who had recently died (after returning to Belgium to serve as vice rector of the American College of Louvain. The chapel was newly named “Saint Louis Chapel.” In the early 1940s, the building was enlarged, tripling its capacity to 175.

By 1949, the Catholic population had grown so significantly that Msgr. Edward L. Stephens, pastor of Saint Mary, purchased additional land and a house across the street from the chapel. Saint Louis was officially established as a parish that same year and given its first resident pastor, Fr. Albert P. Campbell. Father Campbell took up residence in the house across the street from the chapel, which thus became the first parish rectory. The Catholic population of Groveton continued to grow spectacularly. When Fr. Eugene P. Walsh came to Saint Louis as pastor in 1955, the parish had grown to 1,700 parishioners. Father Walsh purchased additional property for the construction of a school and convent. In 1956, both the school and convent were dedicated by the Bishop of Richmond, Most Rev. Peter L. Ireton.

Saint Louis Catholic School opened on September 15, 1956. Religious sisters from Allegany, New York, came to serve as the principal and teachers. The school began with four Sisters of the Third Order Regular of Saint Francis and 185 students in first and second grades. School tuition was $50 per year for one child, $80 for two children, and $100 for three or more children. Because the Catholic population was so large, Masses were now celebrated in the school cafeteria and soon after in the auditorium of the old Groveton High School (presently Bryant High School).

In 1958, Ludwood Popkins died. Mr. and Mrs. Popkins had no children, so he bequeathed five acres of property to the Diocese of Richmond. It is on this property that the current monastery of the Poor Clares would be built. By 1960, it was clear that there was need for a much larger church, so the necessary fundraising and efforts were undertaken to build a new parish church that could serve the growing Catholic population. A new church with a capacity for more than 1,000 was constructed and solemnly dedicated on May 5, 1962. The original parish chapel would be renamed “Msgr. Walsh Hall,” in honor of the pastor who oversaw the construction of this new church.

In 1974, Saint Louis became a parish under the new Diocese of Arlington with its first bishop, Most Rev. Thomas J. Welsh. In 1977, Bishop Welsh invited the Poor Clares of Roswell, New Mexico, to establish a cloistered monastery here in the Diocese. He elected to build that monastery on the five acres that had been bequeathed to the Diocese in 1958 by Ludwood Popkins. On July 5, 1977, six Poor Clare nuns, with Mother Mary Francis as Abbess, took up temporary residence in the vacant former convent of the Franciscan Sisters who had taught in the parish school. On February 2, 1979, the Poor Clares took up permanent residence in the newly constructed monastery, located less than a mile from Saint Louis Parish.

Since 1979, the Saint Louis has continued to thrive and grow. In a recent survey of parishioners, the question was asked: “What do you love most about Saint Louis Parish?” Parishioners consistently identified four reasons:

  • it is traditional
  • it is welcoming
  • it is diverse
  • the parish school is great