The D.C. area is already home to the country's largest Catholic church, the dramatic Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Now the Vatican has designated for the region a second basilica, this time a 223-year-old congregation in Northern Virginia whose first donor was George Washington.
The Rev. Michael Burbidge, bishop of the Diocese of Arlington — which covers northeastern Virginia, including Washington's busy suburbs — announced the news at 8:30 a.m. Mass on Sunday at the historic St. Mary Catholic Church.
The parish will now be called "The Basilica of Saint Mary," and will probably attract Catholic tourists as a result of its new designation and seal.
St. Mary is now the 84th "minor basilica" in the United States, structures honored for special attributes that can be architectural, historical or geographical. It means that in the eyes of the Vatican, St. Mary has the same standing as the National Shrine, which attracts thousands to Northeast Washington each year.
"It's a huge honor for Alexandria, which isn't known as a Catholic town. This certainly puts us on the map," said Ken Wolfe, a parishioner at St. Mary.
Each Catholic diocese has a cathedral, which is like its headquarters church. But not all dioceses have basilicas. The Catholic Church's four "major" basilicas are all in Rome.
St. Mary is large for a U.S. Catholic church, with 7,500 members. It has a school and sits near the Potomac River, which makes the historic parish popular for weddings.
In a region mad for history, congregants have noticed that there are signs around Alexandria directing tourists to other landmark churches — but not theirs, said the Rev. Edward Hathaway, St. Mary's pastor. "This is a recognition of the parish's role in the community, and among Catholics, for almost 225 years," he said.
According to the Arlington diocese, St. Mary was founded in 1795, the first Catholic parish in the commonwealth.
George Washington made the first financial contribution to the parish in the late 1700s, giving an amount equivalent to $1,200 today, the diocese said in a statement. Washington wasn't Catholic, but his close aide Lt. Col. John Fitzgerald was Catholic and an early supporter of the parish. Washington was in social circles with and hosted at Mount Vernon the Rev. John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in America and founder of Georgetown University.
Initially built at the south end of Alexandria, the parish moved in 1810 to its current location at 310 S. Royal St.
Discrimination against Catholics was fierce in Virginia. They were forbidden from holding office and voting, among other inequities.
"Prior to American independence, Catholics in Alexandria often worshiped in fear, in a hidden way, because the Roman Catholic Church was greatly restricted in Virginia, as it was throughout most of the English colonies," Hathaway told parishioners on Sunday, according to a transcript.
"As the nation grew, so did the influence of Saint Mary's Parish, solidly establishing Catholicism throughout this region."