St. Francis de Sales: From 99 families to 100 years of service
By Andrea Gaines
St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville will celebrate its 100th Anniversary with a family picnic on Saturday, Sept. 18, from noon to 4 p.m.
As the Church website notes, “The entire parish and Purcellville community are invited.” Said the church’s pastor, Father James Gould, “Join us for a traditional picnic with great food, additional treats, games, memorabilia, activities, and entertainment for all to enjoy.”
The church is also calling all bakers—looking for homemade pies and specialty cakes for a Bake-Off Silent Auction.
“This day marks the 100th Anniversary of the dedication of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church,” said Fr. Gould.
“As we have been held down with the COVID restrictions in the last 17 months, there was no immediate plan on celebrating the anniversary where all could attend.”
“Now with the recent openings proclaimed by the powers that be in the Commonwealth and Diocese, we have decided to celebrate the anniversary with a parish picnic on Saturday, September 18.”
“Lily of the Mohawks” and other bits of Virginia and church history
Fr. Gould is as enthusiastic about the festivities planned as he is about celebrating the history of the church in Virginia and beyond.
We spoke with Fr. Gould recently, and he absolutely gushed when asked about the fun to come and the long journey of St. Francis de Sales, which served as a mission for just 99 Loudoun County Catholics before it became an official parish.
Fr. Gould knows a lot about Virginia’s and North America’s history – history going way back – and how it relates to his beloved church.
He told us, for example, about a Native American known as the Lily of the Mohawks. Noted Fr. Gould, “She traversed through our current parish boundaries when the Mohawks were wintering in North Carolina.”
This original flower child, or environmentalist is Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Indigenous American to be canonized as a saint.
Known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” she is the patroness of ecology and the environment. Tekakwitha was a figure from 17th century Virginia, New England, and Canada.
As Fr. Gould related in a church newsletter announcing the September celebration, “The turn of the 19th century found Loudoun County, Virginia, with few Catholics, and even fewer Catholic churches. Only one existed, that being the Immaculate Conception, founded in 1878, in Leesburg.
“In 1918,” he continued, “Henry and Philomena Schneider, of Round Hill, made an arrangement with Father Van Ingelgem, which brought the first Catholic services to the County west of Leesburg.”
Original services in private homes
“Services at a private home, the Schneider home, continued until 1919, and since attendance at these services had been continually increasing, Father Van Ingelgem began searching for another location.”
Fr. Gould continued, “Services were held for a long time in this private home in Purcellville. Then, outgrowing that space, a new church was built on the Ball Property at 16th and Main Streets. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held in 1920, and on May 29, 1921, the church was dedicated.”
This is the sequence of events and history being brought back to life on Sept. 18.
On Sept. 1, 1967, an agreement was signed between the Capuchin Franciscan Friars, New Jersey Province, and the Diocese of Richmond. The Capuchins’ offer to serve at St. Francis and upgraded the status of the church from mission to parish. The “new” parish of St. Francis de Sales began with 99 families. In 1974, the Diocese of Arlington was established, and St. Francis de Sales became a parish in this new diocese.
St. Francis de Sales continually increased its ability to serve Loudoun County Catholics. Our area is one of the most prosperous and fastest-growing places in the nation, and as the area’s Catholic population grew, so did de Sales, dovetailing with the needs of people just as it had done during the time of Lily of the Mohawks.
“The number of masses was increased to three each on Sunday and additional masses were said at the Blue Ridge Middle School Auditorium, and the Loudoun Valley High School Auditorium,” said Fr. Gould.
“Churches in the area, including Protestant churches, collaborated to serve the faithful, with whatever space was available for dinners, marriages, education, and more. Larger churches and more church facilities were needed, and that required money. Land needed to be acquired, permits needed to be obtained, architect’s drawings approved, sufficient capital raised,” he said.
Keeping with the Catholic order of things, at St. Francis de Sales, a “friary” was built instead of a rectory. In 1992, the church was completed and “with joy and exaltation was dedicated on June 28, 1992. At that time, the parish served 250 families,” said Fr. Gould.
Over time, the church known as St. Francis de Sales built additional space for meetings, kitchen space, and several classrooms for religious education.
“Classes for religious education were held at Loudoun Valley High School, and then Woodgrove High School,” he said. But, as “the community room and kitchen weren’t adequate for the size of the parish, large events such as weddings and large-scale parish events could not be held in the limited space available, youth activities, and recreation for all members of the parish were minimal.”
Early in 2001 the concept of a new parish center was introduced. Over time, St. Francis de Sales evolved into what we see today. And, the rest is history, all to be celebrated on Saturday, Sept. 18.