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Fairfax Station church that inspired Red Cross founder celebrates 150 years

By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, September 23, 2010; VA18

The Fairfax Station church in which American Red Cross founder Clara Barton got her start turned 150 this year.

St. Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church, at Fairfax Station Road and Route 123, became the first Catholic church in Fairfax County when it was officially dedicated in 1860.

According to church officials, two Irish Catholic families living in Fairfax Station -- the Hamills and Cunninghams -- donated a tract of land to the Diocese of Richmond in 1838, in hopes of having a Catholic church built on it. But the area was in more need of a cemetery, so the land was used for that purpose until the church's cornerstone was laid 20 years later.

"In the meantime, a circuit rider priest came monthly for Mass and other services," said Ron Beavers, a Fairfax Station resident and historian.

In the late 1840s, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad began to lay track westward from Alexandria and advertised for workers. Irish immigrants who had come to the area after the Great Famine responded and ultimately settled at Fairfax Station, Beavers said.

"The pastor of St. Mary's Church in Alexandria often held Mass for these railroad workers in boxcars at the train station, about a quarter-mile from where the church is today," Beavers said.

Less than a year after the church's dedication in 1860, the Civil War came to Northern Virginia. Given the church's location on the main road from Fairfax Courthouse to the depot of the Orange and Alexandria Railroad, now Fairfax Station, the area quickly became an important strategic objective for the armies vying for control of area railroads.

At the onset of the war, both Confederate and Union forces were positioned in the area surrounding St. Mary's. The Union controlled the railroad out to Burke, while the Confederates controlled the Manassas area. The land in between, on which St. Mary's stood, would become the scene of numerous skirmishes.

"During the Battle of Manassas, in 1861, the Union Army used the church as a field hospital after removing the pews and using them for firewood," said St. Mary's parishioner Frank Adams, 76, chairman of the 150th anniversary celebration. "Some years after, President Ulysses S. Grant ordered the pews replaced. Those same pews are still there today."

During the Second Battle of Manassas, in late August 1862, the armies clashed for a three-day battle that resulted in nearly 25,000 casualties. Many of the wounded Union soldiers were taken to St. Mary's, which the Union again was using as a field hospital.

"Among those caring for the wounded soldiers, there was a recording clerk from the U.S. Patent Office in Washington named Clara Barton," said Liz Byrne, St. Mary's parishioner, historian and Clara Barton impersonator. "She was from Massachusetts and had heard that many soldiers from her area had been brought there. She wanted to help."

Barton had received no formal medical training but, when she was 11, had nursed her older brother for two years after a bad fall incapacitated him, Byrne said. She nursed the wounded during the battle as heavy rains fell and doctors operated in the only dry place available: the church.

Many of the soldiers who died were buried in the churchyard.

Although 20,000 Confederate soldiers began the push toward Fairfax Station, Barton, along with other volunteers and doctors, remained until the last of the 3,000 or so wounded Union soldiers were evacuated. She watched from the windows of the last train headed north as the Fairfax Station depot was set on fire. Today, 150 years later, controversy still remains as to whether the depot was burned by Confederate or Union troops. Beavers is attempting to set the record straight with the results of his research, claiming it was burned by the Union side.

As a result of Barton's experiences at St. Mary's, she devised a plan to establish a civilian medical treatment society, which became the American Red Cross.

"She envisioned an organization that could attend to troops as they came off the field of battle," Byrne said. "She envisioned trauma care where soldiers could be immediately bandaged and fed."

A plaque honoring Barton sits on the Route 123 side of the church grounds, in front of the Fairfax Station Railroad Museum. Another memorial plaque is affixed to the church.

Today, the church is used for daily Mass. Because it can accommodate only about 200 people, a sister church was built in 1979 on Sideburn Road in Fairfax to serve the more than 3,000 families of the modern parish.

The church celebrated its 150th anniversary during its annual Labor Day festival.

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