Before Friday’s ceremony involving the historic vestry papers of the Pohick Church, Mount Vernon librarian Samantha Snyder cautioned Lynn P. Ronaldi to be careful. Lift the book of bound manuscripts the wrong way, she said, and it could slip out of its protective case and fall to the floor.
Ronaldi, the priest-in-charge of Pohick, an Episcopal church in Lorton, Va., avoided the mortifying faux pas. When the time came, she deftly cradled the book and said: “He was truly formed — in his spirituality and in his leadership skills — when he was in the vestry.”
He was George Washington, and he was the reason several dozen people had gathered at Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington. Amid the book’s bureaucratic minutiae recounting day-to-day church operations is a handwritten entry from 1762: “Ordered that George Washington Esqr. be Chosen and appointed one of the Vestrymen of this Parish….”
It’s the first mention of the future first president. Washington’s name would crop up periodically over the next 23 years, the time he spent on the vestry. At the same time he was helping to run a church, he was helping to build a nation.
The entries in the vestry book start in 1732 and run to the early 1800s. For the past 90 years, the papers have been at the Library of Congress, on loan from the church.
“We really feel like they belong at home in Mount Vernon,” Ronaldi said. She became Pohick’s priest-in-charge last year, the first woman to hold the position. (“When the vestry was voting on me, I was saying to George: ‘I hope you’re not rolling over in your grave.’”)
On the Monday before Independence Day, a team from Mount Vernon arrived at the Library of Congress to complete the transfer. It included Kevin Butterfield, the executive director of Mount Vernon’s library. Ronaldi saw him in the Nicolas Cage role: the history expert eager to get his hands on some national treasure.
The entries in the book aren’t exactly scintillating reading. It’s a lot of stuff like this, from 1735: “Ordered that the Church Wardens receive from each tithable person within this parish the sum of seven pounds of tobacco, it being the net of the parish levy for this present year.”
Said Ronaldi: “Everything was paid for with tobacco then, even the pastor. I was kind of worried when I came here that I might be paid in tobacco.”
The vestry oversaw distributing charity to widows, orphans and the poor. An entry from Oct. 9, 1764, notes a disbursement “to the Wife of Andrew Robinson, a poor Woman” and another to Sarah Mills to maintain her disabled son until he became an apprentice.
Said Ronaldi: “That was just the way they did in Colonial times.”
What makes the book fascinating are the names that crop up in it. George’s father, Augustine, was one of the church’s founders. The Fairfax family worshiped there. So did George Mason, who found himself arguing with George Washington about church business just as often as he did about politics.
When it became clear that a new church building was needed, the pair fussed over where to put it. Mason wanted it closer to his plantation, Gunston Hall. Washington wanted it closer to Mount Vernon. Washington won the argument after preparing a survey showing his preferred site was on higher ground and thus the more hydrologically-sound choice.
The new building was constructed on his side of Pohick Creek in 1774. It stands there still.
The Founding Fathers never let ill feelings cloud their thinking.
“There’s a lot to learn from their civility,” Ronaldi said.
After the ceremony at Mount Vernon, the reverend invited me to visit Pohick, about four miles away as the crow flies.
“Or, as I like to say, as the horse rides,” Ronaldi said.
The church is inextricably linked to Washington and his home on the Potomac. As with Washington’s plantation, Pohick Church eventually fell into disrepair, most miserably during the Civil War, when Union forces took it over, stripped the interior for firewood and souvenirs, chiseled graffiti into the exterior stonework and used the grounds to launch observation balloons. (The vestry papers were moved for safekeeping.)
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — the same group that saved Washington’s plantation — saved Pohick, raising money for its restoration.
“We’re a very vibrant church,” said Ronaldi.
Attend a Sunday service today and you can sit where the first First Family’s box was. Washington prayed there — and so can you.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.