By Bob Clark
On June 1, 1973, The Catholic Virginian, the official publication of the Diocese of Richmond (the Diocese of Arlington did not yet exist), reported that the Bishop of the Diocese, Bishop Walter Sullivan, had announced the formation of two new parishes, including one to serve a part of the growing population of Fairfax County in the Burke-Springfield area. Although the new parish would touch or contain parts of several neighboring parishes, including Holy Spirit and St. Bernadette, the bulk of its territory would come from the parish that had served virtually all of central and southern Fairfax County since the 1850s: St. Mary of Sorrows, located in Fairfax Station. The new parish did not yet have a home or even a name, but it did have a pastor, Father Frank Ready, who was one of the “31 priests assigned” referred to in the headline. According to the article, the new parishes would officially exist beginning June 11.
Although at first the original village of Burke, Virginia, was not included in the boundaries of the new parish, the parish is located today in what the U.S. Census Bureau identifies as the Burke CPD (census-designated place), so it is with Burke that the story of Nativity Parish must begin. The name “Burke” comes from Silas Burke, born in Prince William County, Virginia, in 1796. He became a wealthy and successful farmer and early business leader who in 1824 constructed a grand home that still overlooks the village and surrounding land of Burke. When the Orange & Alexandria Railroad was chartered by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1848, Burke gave land to provide the railroad right-of-way, and the station built on this land was given the name “Burke’s Station”. The village of Burke grew up around this station and the road that crossed the railroad at this point. For the next century or so the village remained small and for the most part isolated from the events affecting the nation’s capital and its surrounding counties. Aside from a Civil War raid and skirmish, and the opening early the next century of a race track and several hotels which made the area a favorite rail excursion for Washingtonians, Burke remained small and peaceful … until the great airport controversy of the 1950s.
Even as Washington’s first airport, Washington National, was under construction between 1938 and 1941 officials with the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) realized that the city would soon need a second airport. Air travel was becoming increasingly popular, National could not be expanded as it was largely surrounded by the Potomac River, and Baltimore’s Friendship Airport was too far away. After World War II, the CAA appointed a commission to study possible alternative sites, and the area around Burke was named in 1951 as the site of choice. Almost immediately the people of Burke formed an opposition group to lobby against the choice, and in 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower recommended that the new airport be built near Chantilly, in western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun Counties. This airport, now known as Dulles International, was dedicated in 1961. The people of the little village of Burke had prevailed against the Goliath of the Federal government; but more importantly for our story, they had made possible – and, in a sense, almost inevitable – the creation of Nativity Parish fifteen years later.
The defeat of the proposed Burke airport made possible the creation of Nativity by leaving untouched the land on which the parish would eventually be established, as the preceding map shows. But equally significant, when the Federal government decided to shift the location to the Chantilly area, it had to divest itself of the large tracts of land it had acquired – some in Burke would say “confiscated” – on which the Burke airport was to have been built. Some of the land was given to the Fairfax County Park Authority; this land eventually became Burke Lake Park. But about 600 acres were sold to a land developer and eventually ended up in the hands of the Burke Centre Association. In this way, the land became the core of the planned community built in the 1970s just west of the proposed new parish, which leads us to the next great force that lay behind the creation of Nativity: the suburban expansion into southern and western Fairfax County in the 1960s and 1970s.
The need for a new parish to serve this region of the county was becoming increasingly apparent as the population of Fairfax County exploded during the quarter century following the end of World War II. For most of its history, Fairfax had been an agricultural county whose farms provided food for the District of Columbia and the nearby cities of Arlington and Alexandria. From a population of slightly more than 12,000 in 1790, Fairfax County had grown to only 40,000 by 1940, on the eve of World War II. By 1950, though, its population neared 100,000; by 1960, it neared 250,000; by 1970, it exceeded 450,000; and by 1975, it neared 550,000. Moreover, as subdivisions in the eastern part of the county filled with new families, there was increasing pressure to move south and west, into areas that were still working farms.
Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, Fairfax County politics was dominated by the debate between advocates for, and opponents of, suburban growth. In 1973, Virginia courts struck down the last line of defense of anti-growth groups, a Fairfax County moratorium on new sewer connections for private residences, and the way was opened for new residential development of the county south and west of Pohick Creek.
Despite these hard-to-ignore numbers, the creation of a new parish to serve what was at the time mostly rural farm land must have taken a lot of vision, and not an inconsiderable amount of faith. A map of St. Mary’s Parish, dated September 15, 1971 tells the story. A total of 569 families were then registered in St. Mary’s; about one-quarter (131) were identified as “rural”. Only four subdivisions of any size had been built south and west of Braddock Road and Pohick Creek, and two of these (Country Club View and Kings Park West) would not be in the new parish area. Someone (probably the pastor of St. Mary’s) had used a red pencil to outline what is denoted only as the “New Proposed Southeast Parish,” and there were only two clusters of homes within this boundary: Rolling Valley and Orange Hunt, together housing only 200 families then registered at St. Mary’s. These two clusters are just to the right of the “IV” on the map. Everything else in the proposed parish was either farmland or undeveloped land that had been bought by speculators in anticipation of the expected growth of the county population.
In the late 1960s into 1970, many Catholics living in the Orange Hunt and Rolling Valley Communities felt isolated from their parish church. They had to travel a considerable distance to attend Mass or for weddings or baptisms. Some were even confused about the parish to which they belonged, and attended Mass at St. Bernadette’s Church instead. The situation was untenable from the perspective of St. Mary’s as well. The tiny church, built in 1858 and now a national historic landmark, could barely handle the nearby parishioners; when the Orange Hunt and Rolling Valley parishioners were added, the small church overflowed during Mass.
Since all of the 200 or so families in Hunt Valley transferred as a group to the new parish, it is impossible to identify the “first parishioner” of Nativity; but the woman in this photograph was certainly one of the first. She is Anna Dix, shown leaving St. Mary’s Historic Church after Mass. She is followed by one of her sons. The date of the photo is not known. It appeared on the cover of a 1974 calendar produced by the Claretian Fathers, the order whose priests staffed St. Mary’s beginning in 1969. The priest pictured was Father Richard Farrell, who came to St. Mary’s in 1969.
In the spring of 1970, the Co-Pastor of St. Mary’s, Father Donald Lavelle, asked parishioner and Orange Hunt resident Mary O’Brien to assemble a group of parishioners who were her neighbors to discuss ways of addressing this problem. Parishioners Joe and Mary Pettit were also among the approximately ten attendees at this meeting, held around the kitchen table in the O’Brien family home. Father Lavelle asked those present to conduct a door-to-door census to determine the number of Catholics living in the two neighborhoods, and indeed a number were found who were not registered at St. Mary’s. Shortly after that, St. Mary’s began celebrating Mass for these neighborhoods at the elementary school that serviced them: Hunt Valley Elementary. The school soon came to be referred to by parishioners as “Holy Hunt”. On June 11, 1973, the day Bishop Sullivan announced the creation of the new parish, Father Richard Farrell, Co-Pastor of St. Mary’s, wrote the Fairfax County School Board to request that the new parish be allowed to use the Hunt Valley School until its worship center had been completed.
Thus, when the parish’s new pastor, Father Ready, showed up to celebrate the parish’s first Mass on June 11, he found a congregation and a worship location (albeit temporary) already in place. Everything had happened so fast, however, that the new parish did not even have a name. Temporarily, everyone referred to it as St. What’s-His-Name’s Parish. One of the first orders of business was to select a name. Father Ready proposed, and Bishop Sullivan accepted, Church of the Nativity; and on July 1, 1973, Father Ready informed the congregation not to use the temporary, informal term any longer. Nativity Parish was a reality.