By Bob Clark
The agenda of Nativity’s first two pastors was of necessity focused inward to build the institutional, physical and community foundations needed during the parish’s first quarter-century. The parish’s next pastor, Father Richard B. Martin, could turn the parish’s attention outward, to attend to an agenda much more oriented toward service to those in need wherever they may be.
Father Martin is a native of Warwick, Rhode Island. He was ordained in May 1966 and became pastor of Nativity in 1996. He had previously been pastor at St. Philip in Falls Church from 1987 to 1996. His Parochial Vicar from 2001 to 2010 was Father Kevin O’Keefe. He was joined in 2010 by Father Bill Korpi. Father Korpi had been a Permanent Deacon with Father Martin for about ten years at St. Philip and for a similar period at Nativity before entering the seminary in 2003, following the death of his wife of 35 years, Vinnie. Father Cedric Wilson was a Visiting Priest during Father Martin’s tenure, as was Deacon Jose Pardo, who served the parish’s growing Hispanic population. Father Armando Marsal, DCJM, was assigned to the parish from 2005 to 2009 to serve the needs of the Hispanic community. Deacon Dale Avery joined the parish in 2011.
|Father Bill Korpi||Father Armando Marsal||Father Cedric Wilson|
Like his predecessors, Father Martin was also committed to building a sense of community at Nativity, but he gave a different meaning to the word “community”. Father Martin wanted the parish to be open to everyone in need, no matter their faith or where they were in the world. All people were welcomed to the parish. In particular, the rapidly growing Hispanic community in the Burke area was recognized as a special ministry. The Saturday evening Vigil Mass was now celebrated in Spanish, confessions were heard in Spanish, and CCD in Spanish became a regular feature of the parish’s religious education program. Eventually, a Spanish-language CYO was also added, as were ESL classes for Hispanics, Spanish-language pages in the weekly Bulletin, and Spanish-language weddings, baptisms, and other ministries.
Father Martin made clear that while his predecessors had had to focus on building the physical foundation of the parish, they had largely accomplished that goal, leaving him and the parish free to focus on helping people in need. He sought to re-focus the attention of the parish from the physical church (its buildings, statuary and art, and furnishings) to the human church. That is, he wanted to emphasize that “the building is not the church; the people are the church.” Years later, he commented that he regarded his most important accomplishments as “having people know a positive, loving God to take to the outside world” and “evangelization in a different way – to teach love by actions.” Many of the specific programs and activities of the parish to achieve these goals are described in detail in “Nativity Voices,” Part II of this history.
In his re-focusing of the parish’s agenda away from buildings and toward a program of outreach and service, Father Martin was putting into practice an approach that had served him well at St. Philip. By seeking to engage the parish in sacrifice for, and service to, the poor – wherever they may be – he encouraged parishioners to be more serving and sacrificial for their own parish as well. It was almost as if the outreach dimension of the parish reinforced and strengthened the commitment of parishioners to their own parish as well. He found the same to be true at Nativity.
In 1997 Saint Raymond of Penafort Parish was created nearby, and part of Nativity Parish was transferred to the new parish. Nevertheless, the parish population continued to grow. In 2000, parish enrollment stood at 9,296 individuals; within five years it had risen to over 13,000.
The tragic events of September 11, 2001, shook Nativity as they did all Americans, but with a special impact. Our proximity to the Pentagon meant that we felt the impact of the attack on that building with special force. One parishioner died aboard the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon, and another lost her life in the building itself. Because such a high proportion of the parish community consists of military service families, we also experienced losses in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a powerful and personal way. Two parishioners were killed in Iraq during the early days of the fighting there. Soon after the invasion of Iraq, the parish opened a prayer book in the church vestibule for all to write the names and prayers for their family and friends who were stationed in the two war zones. By the fall of 2013, over 4,000 names of service members had been inscribed in these books.
On January 10, 2002, Nativity was again the subject of a “Parish Profiles” article in the Arlington Catholic Herald, written this time by Linda Busetti. The title was “Church of the Nativity Parish Reaches Out”. Excerpts of this article appear below:
“Everyone has wonderful talents and gifts, not just the pastor,” said Father Richard Martin, pastor of the Church of the Nativity Parish in Burke. “Everyone can make a difference. The successful pastor is one who uses power to enable the people and enable their talents to grow.”
Parish outreach starts with the pastor. In 1997, Father Martin … challenged his parishioners to “make a miracle,” … now known as Project Starfish. … The “miracle” continues. “The next year we helped to fund a medical mobile van in Haiti, the next year to rebuild an orphanage, and this year to rebuild an area with 35 new houses, which will be called Nativity Village after our church,” said Father Martin.
[Nativity School Principal Maria] Kelly, in her first year as principal, is proudest of student outreach to the community after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “As a school community we raised $2,400 for the Sept. 11 fund,” she said.
…[A]ccording to youth minister Theresa Rogers, “The youth are very into community service. Kids come back from Work Camp with their hearts on fire for social justice and for helping. … It starts with the pastor and his passion for the poor.” …
Deacon Bill Korpi collected three van loads of warm coats and blankets for the homeless. On a school holiday, he, Rogers, and 15 teens distributed them to the homeless in Washington. …
… More than 1,600 public school students attend religious education classes on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at Nativity School. Over 250 adults volunteer as classroom catechists, office workers or wherever they are needed. “They are just great. We couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” Sister Donatella said. … This year 223 young people were confirmed and 200 will receive First Communion in May 2002. …
Deacon Korpi has served Nativity for five years. He directs the RCIA program, which brought 62 people to the sacraments last year. “We try to do a lot of community building – learning about Christ and welcoming people into a community of believers. …
“Outreach – I think that has been the success of this parish. My Dad said, ‘when you give out to others, it comes back double,’ and this has happened in this parish,” Father Martin said.
The rapid growth of the parish, (over 13,000 registered parishioners in 2002) and in particular the growth of the parish’s Hispanic community, caused several changes in the schedule of Masses. Daily Mass, Monday through Saturday, was moved to 7:30 am. The Saturday Masses were set at 5:00 pm and in Spanish at 7:00 pm. Sunday Masses were re-scheduled to 7:30, 9:00, and 11:30 am, and 12:30 pm.
In 1997, a change of great significance was the launching of liturgical and spiritual formation programs in Spanish intended to address the needs of Nativity’s growing Hispanic population. In this, Father Martin’s own interests coincided with leadership from the diocese, where there was growing concern about the number of Northern Virginia Hispanics who were leaving the Catholic Church for more inviting evangelical Protestant churches in the area. In 1974 the Diocese of Arlington had created the Hispanic Apostolate, a special office to meet the needs of the growing Hispanic community in Northern Virginia; and through this office the diocese advanced a vigorous agenda of instruction in the faith, liturgical formation, and the practice of charity. By 2013, 37 of the diocese’s 68 parishes offered Mass, confessions, religious education and other ministries in Spanish. Nativity was one of the first to offer this full range of services. The later Vigil Mass on Saturday nights was changed to 7:00 pm and was celebrated in Spanish, and CCD classes were offered in Spanish on Saturday evenings timed to conclude just before the Mass began.
A different kind of outreach to Hispanics and to other non-English-speaking groups in the parish involved classes in English as a second language (ESL). In the beginning these classes were offered on Saturday mornings sponsored by Hogar Hispano (now called Hogar Immigrant Services), an office of the Catholic Charities of the diocese. The Hogar program was terminated in 2007, and was replaced that same year by a locally staffed and funded program. On Saturday mornings, classes were offered at three levels, as well as assistance with computer problems the students encountered. There were also night classes on Wednesday and Thursday. Teaching was done by parish volunteers who usually numbered about 15, and enrollment was usually between 30 and 40.
On December 16, 2010, Nativity was the subject of a “parish profiles” article for the third time in the Arlington Catholic Herald, written this time by Katie Collins. The title of this profile was “’Charity for people, all people’: Parishioners’ impulse to serve extends across pew, street, globe”. By this time, the Nativity motto – “Helping others across the street and around the world” – had become well known, and was the theme of this article, excerpts from which follow below.
Nativity scenes are a regular feature at parishes during Christmastime, but the Holy Family outside [the] Church of the Nativity in Burke remains year-round, a sculptured triad of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus that depicts a family infused with love that shines out to the world. It’s a fitting image for the parish.
“Every parish has various charisms,” said Father Wilson “Bill” Korpi, parochial vicar. “This parish’s No. 1 charism is charity – a charity for people, all people.”
A look into the Nativity community reveals a charity not merely defined by financial assistance to the poor. “The goal is not about money, but to move people’s hearts toward those in need,” said Father Richard B. martin, pastor. …
Jim McDaniel, director of “Operation Starfish” – the parish outreach to Haiti and other Third World countries – and a parishioner since the Springfield days [i.e., before the church was open and Mass was celebrated at Hunt Valley], said the parish has “seen some ups and downs over the years.” …
Yet a strong bond emerged from this hardship, and the parish has since doubled in size, according to McDaniel. There are currently 13,956 parishioners, with a healthy religious education program of 1,401.
Part of this resilience might be attributed to Father Martin, pastor since 1996, who “sets the tone of the parish,” said Josefa Lopez, parish secretary. “He is so generous, always with and for the people,” she said. …
At the parish level, there are countless ministries, including the prayer shawl ministry, in which participants pray as they knit shawls for ill parishioners, and the “Mom and Me’ cooperative “designed to address the needs of mothers and their children,” …
Andrea Schempp, assistant principal of NativitySchool, said the spirit of charity promoted by Father Martin not only has nurtured the parish, but also the school. “He’s called us to be caretakers of each others’ hearts,” she said. …
Many of the ministries reach beyond parish and school boundaries, such as the Women of Nativity, which sponsors, among other programs, a “Christmas in August” to distribute school supplies to underprivileged children.
Perhaps the most ambitious service legacy is Operation Starfish. McDaniel said Father Martin was inspired to start the program in 1998 while thinking about ways parishioners could walk faithfully through Lent. Father Martin wanted to encourage the parish to “reach out to the poorest of the poor,” said McDaniel, and he selected Haiti as a beneficiary “because of the depth of poverty there.”
Prior to the January earthquake and recent cholera outbreak, volunteers from Nativity built six villages, more than 800 houses, and purchased nine fishing boats for Haitians.
Each village is supported by a fishing co-op and represents an investment of approximately $60,000, said McDaniel.
Father Martin said that one or two groups of about 15 parishioners travel to the villages in Haiti each year, and the parish raised $200,000 to help Haitians in the aftermath of the earthquake. …
After Nativity started receiving inquiries from parishes across the country about the program, Operation Starfish was trademarked by Food for the Poor to support and promote its efforts. More than 300 parishes and schools have adopted Operation Starfish, said McDaniel. …
McDaniel, reflecting on continuous parish efforts to offer material and spiritual support [to Haiti], said that “connecting with the poor has made us more compassionate, more generous overall.”
Inscribed above the church entrance is “This is My house and from this spot My glory will shine”; through labors of hearts and hands, Nativity parishioners work to fulfill this declaration.
On May 3, 2014, Father Richard Martin died of complications from diabetes. His death shocked and saddened the entire parish family. His funeral, on May 9, was attended by several thousand. Funeral masses were said for him in Haiti and Cameroons as well. As of this writing, the parish awaits the naming of his successor pastor, who will inaugurate the next phase of Nativity’s history.