- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

A huge lawsuit involving the national Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia vs. 11 congregations that have broken away to join an Anglican body brings up an inevitable question.

Why is everyone so dead set on holding onto some of these historic properties?

Last week, I wandered into Mary Riley Styles Library in Falls Church to read up on the oldest of the 11 exiting parishes: the 276-year-old Falls Church, after which the city is named. The library has a special room devoted to the history of Falls Church and its signature parish, which sits on 5.5 acres of prime real estate with a total assessed value of $24.7 million.

In 1608, Capt. John Smith sailed up the Potomac River past multiple Indian villages and was waylaid at the “little falls” of the Potomac. Eventually, a road from those falls to a settlement three miles inland was named Little Falls Road. A church that was built at the end of that road was named Falls Church.

Churches were quite scarce back in those days, and ministers, if you could find them, were paid in tobacco, a far more tradable commodity than British pounds.

In 1732, the Virginia General Assembly divided northern Virginia into two parishes: Hamilton and Truro. Truro encompassed what is now Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties, plus the city of Alexandria.

On Nov. 7, 1732, a “vestry” of 12 persons was elected by citizens to oversee the spiritual health of this vast area. One of the first things this vestry did, on March 26, 1733, was to advertise for bids to build a church at the crossroads of Little Falls Road and Leesburg Pike, the latter a road from Alexandria to Leesburg.

The vestry engaged a preacher for the new church — plus two other chapels within horseback-riding distance — for 8,000 pounds of tobacco. It also arranged for another 33,500 pounds of tobacco to be spent to build a church 40 feet long, 22 feet wide and 13 feet high. It was completed in the summer of 1734.

On Nov. 18, 1735, Capt. Augustine Washington became a member of the Truro parish vestry. On Oct. 25, 1752, his more-famous son, George Washington, joined it.

In those days, the church held services every Sunday. This was a luxury in an era when muddy horse trails, swollen streams and a lack of bridges often kept either the minister or congregants from attending.

As I paged through several books on this era, other famous names — such as George Mason, a Founding Father — surfaced as vestry members.

James Wren, another vestry member and purported descendant of Sir Christopher Wren — who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in the 1660s — was contracted to build a newer brick church from 1767 to 1769. The kiln where the bricks were made is near present-day Shreve Road, named after another local family.

I haven’t the space to go through 200 more years of history, including the Civil War years when the church was used by both Confederate and Union soldiers and converted into a stable for a short time. St. Paul’s Church in Haymarket, built in 1801 and also one of the 11 breakaway congregations, suffered a similar fate.

One’s past does not always define one’s future and history is not everything in defining a church. But when the present is unstable and the future is unknown, the sight of past triumphs and accomplishments that touch the fabric of the country’s founding can be mighty comforting.

Julia Duin’s column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at jduin@ washingtontimes.com.

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