Saint Rita


Founding Pastor: Fr. Leonard J. Koster
Parish Founded: September 21, 1924
Church Dedication: Current church dedicated December 18, 1949.
Additional Dates of Importance:  First Mass celebrated at the Mission: July 16, 1913. Dedication of original church on Hickory Street: October 18, 1914. Saint Rita School opened: September 15, 1952. Saint Rita Preschool opened: September 6, 2011

School Information:

Saint Rita Catholic School
Founded: September 15, 1952
Founding Pastor:  Msgr. Emmet P. Gallagher

From the humble beginnings of the cobbler's shop where the "Ladies Seminarian Society" gathered the children of local Catholics to instruct them in the Catholic Faith, there is a long history of education at Saint Rita Parish. When the Saint Rita Mission became a parish in 1924, this legacy of education continued through Sunday school and religious vacation school classes conducted by Dominican Sisters and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, traveling from Washington and Baltimore by train and streetcar.

Under Saint Rita's second pastor, Msgr. Emmett P. Gallagher, plans for a school began in earnest. Ground was broken in 1951 for a school, annex and convent for the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who would staff the school. By the time the school opened on September 15, 1952, it had become a nine-room school, staffed by six sisters and three lay teachers. A three-room addition was added in 1953, providing 12 classrooms and a school hall. Enrollment continued to increase to a peak of 976 students (in 1957) with 13 sisters in residence in the convent.

Monsignor Gallagher was a great supporter of Catholic education. His dream was a tuition-free school, which, unfortunately, he was not able to fulfill for various reasons. For many years, however, he did try to keep tuition fees low, and no child of the parish was ever denied education at the school if the parents could not pay. Monsignor Gallagher's love for Catholic education was so great that he even paid Catholic high school tuition fees out of his own pocket for families that could not otherwise afford to do so.

A “Home and School Association” was established by Monsignor Gallagher and Mother Francis Patrick in 1966 and has worked hard since its inception to bring teachers and parents together for the good of the children and the good of the parish. Under a new name, the Parent Teacher Organization continues to support the school by volunteering in the school and fundraising to support school programs by bringing together parents, parishioners and the larger community.

As the school continued to grow, in fall 2011, Saint Rita School opened a preschool in the parish center building, offering parents a unique program that blends a classic, child-centered preschool experience with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, or Atrium. Based on the Montessori method, the Atrium offers a hands-on approach with unique materials concerning the most essential and age-appropriate aspects of the Catholic Faith. 

Saint Rita School is deeply indebted to the Sisters of Saint Joseph for their outstanding educational contributions to its parish school since 1952. In fact, the Sisters of Saint Joseph had a continued presence in the school until 2019. Saint Rita School continues to benefit from the rich tradition provided by the Sisters of Saint Joseph as it transitions to a classical curriculum, assisting children to embrace a truly Catholic vision of reality, allowing them to see the good, the true and the beautiful in all things.

What Makes This Parish Unique?

Saint Rita Parish has a long history of meeting the spiritual needs of its parishioners in ways that allow them to experience and grow in their faith though many diverse programs and liturgies, including English, Latin and Spanish Masses. Saint Rita also offers confessions every evening except Sunday and offers evening Mass every weekday.  There is eucharistic adoration before every weekday evening Mass, except on Fridays, when adoration takes place after the evening Mass and continues through the night until the Saturday morning Mass. In the early 1940s, the Miraculous Medal novena was introduced into the parish, and ever since its inception, the novena has been observed in the church on Monday evenings.

St. Rita parish also has a thriving homeschool group that supports families in the parish and surrounding area, including the opportunity for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and a weekly children's Holy Hour. Saint Rita also has its own little saints, Saint Everett and Saint Maria Therese, buried in a special grave in the churchyard, following the time-honored Church tradition of venerating baptized children who die sinless, before the age of reason. Around the saints' grave, Saint Rita has also offered its parishioners a place to bury miscarried children.

Parish History:

In 1912, a group of involved, dedicated women, known as the “Ladies Seminarian Society,” gathered the children of Catholic families living in the area then known as Saint Elmo-Abington-Del Ray and proceeded to instruct them in the Catholic faith in a cobbler's shop. This was the beginning of the rich history of Saint Rita parish in Alexandria. 

The first Mass for the mission was offered on July 16, 1913 at the same cobbler's shop by Fr. A. J. Van Ingelgem of St. James Church.  Masses continued to be offered in the cobbler's shop until May 1914, when they began to be offered at the homes of two local Catholics. 

In 1914, permission was secured from Bishop Denis J. O'Connell to build a church and a name was chosen, placing the project under the care of Saint Rita of Cascia, the patroness of “impossible causes.” Ground was broken for the original Saint Rita Church on Hickory Street in Mt. Ida in March of 1914. Dedicated in October of the same year, Masses were offered by priests from Saint Mary's until the “Mission” became a parish in 1924 with its own pastor, Father Leonard Koster. Dominican Sisters and Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart began religious education for children in the parish, traveling from Washington and Baltimore by train and streetcar. Capuchin Fathers also helped out at Saint Rita and became an important part of the church community.

By 1940 the parish had grown to 1,000 people and a new church was needed. Father Koster secured three acres on Russell Road from the Beall and Conlon families. In the meantime, in order to accommodate additional Masses,  Mass was offered in the Palm Theatre, as well as the Vernon Theatre.

After Father Koster's transfer in 1947, the new pastor, Father Gallagher, embarked on a program of construction which would give Saint Rita a complete plant including church, school, rectory, convent and annex. Despite the difficulty of securing materials during the Korean War, Saint Rita Church was dedicated on December 18, 1949, with Bishop Peter L. Ireton laying the cornerstone. Described as a beautiful example of Gothic architecture, the church was constructed of Virginia fieldstone and Indiana limestone.  St. Rita School was dedicated in September 1952, and originally was staffed by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  In addition to his commitment to Catholic education, Monsignor Gallagher was known for his dedication to making a visitation of the parish every year.  Sometimes he and his associates visited more than 100 homes in a week, creating a strong bond between the priests and their parishioners.

In 1967, following Monsignor Gallagher's retirement, Father Edward P. Browne was installed as Pastor of St. Rita Parish.  Father Browne fostered the establishment of a unit of the Legion of Mary and promoted the Fifty-Plus Club.  On many a hot summer Sunday, parishioners can be grateful to Father Browne, who installed central air-conditioning in the church.

Following Father Browne's transfer in 1972, Father Francis L. Bradican became pastor of St. Rita Parish.  His first major project at St. Rita's was the re-decoration of the church interior, including the cleaning of the stone arches, and the addition of oriental rugs in the sanctuary.  During Father Bradican's tenure, the parish celebrated its 50th Anniversary (in 1974) with a year full of celebrations.  The Bishop of the newly formed Diocese of Arlington, Most Reverend Thomas J. Welsh, was an honored guest and speaker at the Golden Jubilee Mass on September 21, 1974, commemorating the date St. Rita's was elevated to parish status.

In the nearly 50 years that have followed since that Golden Jubilee celebration, St. Rita's has continued to thrive as a parish under the leadership of several pastors, including Father Martin McGuill (1986-1992), Father Clarence Watkins (1992-2000), Father Denis Donahue (2000-2010), Father Daniel Gee (2010-2021), and Father Christopher Christensen (2021-present).  

One notable addition to the parish since the celebration of the 50th anniversary in 1974 is the installation of a magnificent pipe organ.  The organ was dedicated in 1990 and continues St. Rita's long tradition of elevating worship through music, which began with a simple pump organ in the old church on Hickory Street.  Today the new organ continues to foster reverence and beauty in worship, and to support St. Rita's strong sacred music program.

Recent decades have also seen a demographic shift in the region, including an influx of immigrants from Central America, which led to the addition of a weekly Sunday Mass in Spanish at St. Rita Church.  The Hispanic Community provides a rich contribution to the life of the parish and supports many apostolates, including an active Legion of Mary group, a young adult group, and a group that meets weekly in the church to pray and worship God through music.  The Hispanic Community also organizes a celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe every December, complete with a Mariachi band, as well as hot chocolate offered after Mass.  This annual celebration brings together not only the Hispanic Community but also parishioners from the English-speaking community.

Another recent demographic change is the addition of more and more young families to the parish, complementing the base of long-standing parishioners.  In the fall of 2011 this prompted the addition to the school of a new preschool (located in the Parish Center building), which offers these parents a unique program for their children, including the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a Montessori-based program for teaching children the Faith.

A history of St. Rita Parish would not be complete without mention of St. Rita's first little saint, St. Everett, whose feast is celebrated on March 22nd. Everett died of a brain hemorrhage in 2017 and was buried in a special grave in the churchyard, following the time-honored church tradition of venerating baptized children who die sinless, before the age of reason.  In May 2021, we buried another little saint near Everett, St. Maria Therese, who died at the age of four months, bearing witness to the value of every life.

To read more about Saint Rita Church, visit: