In the fast-growing Diocese of Arlington, where parishes typically draw thousands of worshipers to huge sanctuaries of brick and stone, St. Peter's Catholic Mission is part of a dying breed: the small church.
Only a few hundred attend Mass in tiny, white-steepled St. Peter's. But what sets it apart from most country churches are the people in the pews -- high-powered executives, academics and other professionals affluent enough to live almost anywhere in the Washington region.
Many say they chose rural Rappahannock County out of a desire to escape the commercialism, traffic, sprawl and stress of Washington's suburbs. Their view of God seems clearer here amid the unspoiled landscape that unfolds like a verdant quilt from the foot of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Indeed, there are no stoplights, fast-food restaurants, Starbucks or Home Depots in Rappahannock County, which lies about 70 miles west of the District. Such conveniences as trash service and supermarkets are nonexistent. Many residents live on plots 30 acres or larger and hardly see anyone but their families outside church services.
For these parishioners, St. Peter's is the focal point of their lives.
"I wanted a little space for my children. I wanted to give them an opportunity to grow up here with a small, intimate parish and the focus on Christ," said Stephen Curley, 45, a father of eight and a vice president of Fidelity National Financial, a Fortune 500 company. "Our decision to stay here is because of St. Peter's. Point-blank, there's no other reason."
For the first time Sunday, St. Peter's left behind its "mission" status and celebrated Mass as a full-fledged parish. It's a milestone that required the consent of Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and other diocesan leaders. And it means St. Peter's will have its own permanent pastor, despite a great need for priests elsewhere in the diocese.
"The church has cared for people whether they live in the country or the city, where there are few gathered or many," Loverde said. "They have a right to the priests and the pastoral care they bring. So I must bring that to them as a bishop."
While more congregations in Washington are trending toward glitzy megachurches with city-size congregations, professional musicians leading worship and modern facilities with coffee shops in the lobby, in Rappahannock, the Catholics at St. Peter's proudly note their smaller numbers and what that means to their fellowship.
As a church becomes megasize, its sense of community suffers, said Loverde, who leads one of the five fastest-growing dioceses in the nation. Fed by immigration, especially from Latin America, and the influx of high-tech workers and federal contractors to the region, all but a few parishes in the diocese have congregations that number in the thousands.
"It's more of a challenge to create a spirit of community within those larger numbers," Loverde said. "Some parishes have to be very creative to be able to have smaller groups to foster that sense of community."
In fact, there are fewer residents in all of Rappahannock -- about 7,000 -- than there are parishioners at All Saints in Manassas, which counts 18,000 on Sundays. Mass can feel more like attending a huge convention than an intimate community of believers.
Such mammoth services are not exclusive to Catholicism. Within Protestant circles, megachurches, such as McLean Bible Church, which opened a $90 million sanctuary in Tysons Corner last summer, are among the fastest-growing and most financially healthy congregations.
That kind of church likely won't spring up in Rappahannock any time soon, despite its relative proximity to Northern Virginia (without traffic, it takes less than an hour to drive there from Fairfax County). The Rev. Robert J. DeMartino, who was temporarily assigned to St. Peter's and will be its permanent pastor, answers his own phone. He prints out his own service bulletins on plain, green paper.
DeMartino, who is from the Bronx, N.Y., said he enjoys the quiet of life in his part of Rappahannock, where the church and a gun shop across the road are the only two buildings in sight.
During the week, DeMartino said it sometimes feels like he's living in a monastery. But on Sundays, a festival-like atmosphere breaks out at the church. Children, many of them home-schooled, run freely on the 25-acre property and are disappointed when they have to leave. Families picnic beneath spreading trees with rolling hills as a backdrop.
"I've never been in a place where the family interaction is so close, where the children come on Sunday, and they want to be here," he said. "It's a special place."
At Christmas, parishioners cut pine trees from their own property and bring them to the church for decorating. In the spring, DeMartino said, "I've never had anything but home-grown flowers on the altar."
Growth restrictions in Rappahannock might limit the size of DeMartino's flock. Outside of a few villages -- blink when you drive by or you might miss them, residents like to say -- most of the county's 255 square miles are zoned for agricultural use and have limits of one home per 25 acres. That has raised real estate values in the county (many properties could fetch millions of dollars) and forced sprawl to pass over Rappahannock.
While residents generally vote Republican in state and national elections, what unifies them politically is a desire to be left alone, said county administrator John McCarthy.
"I have no interest in attracting people to Rappahannock," said McCarthy, who works out of a two-room cabin that makes up the administration building in the county seat of Washington (aka "Little Washington"). "The less this county appears in an attractive light, the easier it is for people here. Tourists we love, speculative investors we loathe."
With the county's bucolic lifestyle comes a certain emphasis on nature and the simple life.
"It feels like you are on vacation every day out here," said Neil O'Heir, 46, who attends St. Peter's with his five boys and is the service director of the Inn at Little Washington, the county's most famous landmark.
Curley, the Fidelity executive, said his six boys and two girls are home-schooled, and he doesn't let them watch television. Instead they spend their free time rehearsing for community theater. His sons are Scouts, play baseball and serve as altar boys.
A native of Boston, Curley said living in Rappahannock is very different from his childhood. He and his wife, who is from New Jersey, had always planned to live in suburban Danbury, Conn. Now he can't imagine living anywhere but the country.
"I've always been so inundated personally by the media," he said. "There's so much commercialism aimed at kids today. We wanted to have much more of a basic life, a slower life."
Added Joe Sladsky, 39, who moved to Rappahannock from Fairfax County in 1999 and is the editor of a scholarly Catholic magazine in Alexandria: "St. Peter's is unique among parishes. We could find no other place where there is such a tight-knit community and a simple way of life."
Marilyn Skowronski, 80, said it can be inconvenient to haul her trash 15 miles to the dump or drive 20 miles to the grocery. But she said she would have life no other way.
She and her husband plan to live the rest of their days on their broad swath of 50 acres. She said they see friends on Sunday but generally keep to themselves during the week -- living alone, but before God.
"We moved out here from McLean because it started getting crowded," she said. "It's so peaceful out here . . . a lot of people here live up in the hollows [of the mountains]. You don't ever see them unless they come down."