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Brass Rubbings

Overnight Adoration

On Saint Rita of Cascia in Alexandria, Virginia.


What a difference faithfulness makes. That’s the lesson of my Washington, D.C.–area parish, easily one of the most vibrant in the region. In the past twenty years, Saint Rita Catholic Church has transformed from a fading parish with a small, gray-haired population into a booming community of young, diverse families with an overpowering sense of orthodoxy and zeal. The pandemic only strengthened Saint Rita’s reputation as a place where authentic Catholics can be sated by the riches of the Church and the person of Jesus Christ.

I encountered Saint Rita in 2011, as a non-Catholic looking for a half-decent R.C.I.A. program. My first few attempts, at D.C. parishes close to where I worked, left a lot to be desired. I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant missionary family, and I wanted my initial Catholic education to be rigorous and grounded in something more than mere personality and emotion. A couple friends recommended I try Saint Rita, which turned out to be the closest parish to my apartment. I dutifully tramped down to the church on a Tuesday night.

I was instantly awed by its beauty. This is no 1960s monstrosity, with a sprawling suburban campus, semi-circular sanctuary, or architecture that can best be described as a spaceship that crashed into a concrete bunker. Saint Rita was built in 1949 with an English-style stone exterior and cruciform interior, with towering pillars and stained glass on all sides. The Mass itself fits the setting, with an organ and hymns, not guitars and video screens.

The deeper beauty came from the people. The pews were full, the parishioners reverent. And I was astounded at how young they were. As a twenty-three-year-old, it seemed to me that at least half the parish was within a decade of me. That very nearly included the priest, Father Daniel Gee, who exuded energy and orthodoxy to an extraordinary degree. He taught most of the first R.C.I.A. class I attended there, shepherding me not only into the Church, but in time, also preparing me for my marriage and baptizing my three children, all at the parish.

Father Gee was a main draw for many parishioners, especially for his short homilies that gave actionable counsel to everyone from a nine-year-old to a ninety-year-old. He put a high emphasis on the sacraments, while urging everyone who walked through the parish doors to lead lives worthy of Christ. His Marine Corps style left no room for half-steps or loopholes. Father Gee called his parishioners to a living faith, and they responded.

Father Gee upheld the standard set by his predecessors. By all accounts, Saint Rita’s renewal began under Father Denis Donahue around the turn of this century. It kicked into higher gear in 2004, when Father Paul Scalia was appointed parochial vicar. He was three years gone when I came to the church, but plenty of peers and older parishioners remember the dramatic change he brought. Out went the all-too-common namby-pamby, feel-good rhetoric of the late twentieth century, the kind that led to the parish’s declining (and increasingly ancient) membership and what I’ve heard called a “dying” feel. In came the preaching on Christ and Christ crucified. Word spread around D.C. about the youthful and faithful parish at the edge of Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia, and a community of committed Catholics rapidly grew.

The new Saint Rita appeals to a diversity of people. Hundreds of young families come for the multiple Novus Ordo Masses, which are mostly in English with some prayers sung in Latin. Hundreds of Hispanic families come for the Spanish Mass, mostly from the immediate neighborhood, which is affectionately called “Little El Salvador.” And in 2010, Saint Rita began offering a Traditional Latin Mass, drawing in even more Catholics from around the region.

While I’m not part of the Latin Mass set, I appreciate the conviction that drives them. Every Sunday, at 9:15 A.M., the Sprinter vans and fifteen-seaters roll up, and every pew in the parish is quickly filled with those who find the beauty and rigor of the Old Rite spiritually edifying. Their contribution to Saint Rita is growing, too. As of late last year, the parish is one of only eight—and the closest to the city—allowed to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass in the Diocese of Arlington. It’s never not full to overflowing.

Saint Rita’s diversity proves that authentic Catholicism is broadly appealing. It’s not owned by a specific group or movement within the Church, nor is it affiliated with some political cause. Rather, when a parish embraces and proclaims the truth of the faith, it draws people from all walks of life. And Saint Rita reflected this fact to an even greater extent during the pandemic.

From the moment the pandemic hit, Saint Rita took the high road. In March 2020, following a statewide mandate, the local bishop banned public Masses. Father Gee complied, moving Saint Rita Masses online. Yet in-person Mass was the only part of the parish he shut down. Along with two other priests, Father Vincent Bork and Father Karol Nędza, he continued to hold confession every day of the week. He also instituted a daily Eucharistic Adoration, giving parishioners a chance to be in the presence of Christ. Saint Rita refused to keep the faithful from the sacraments—and ultimately, our Savior. In a very real sense, Father Gee followed the letter of the law but the spirit of the Lord.

The parish strengthened this stance in the months that followed. When the bishop allowed outdoor Masses in May of 2020, Father Gee immediately held them in the parish parking lot. Virginia began re-opening that June, at which point churches were allowed to hold indoor services at fifty percent capacity. That left the parish with a problem: too many parishioners trying to cram into too few Masses.

The solution? To squeeze in the most people while upholding the law, Father Gee doubled the number of weekend Masses. Parishioners could come at 5:00 or 6:00 P.M. on Saturday as well as every hour from 7:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. on Sunday. Saint Rita had nine Masses total—two Latin, two Spanish, five English. At the time, I asked Father Gee why he did this. His answer was simple: he wanted to ensure that “everyone who wanted to go to Mass could go to Mass.”

They did—and not just from Saint Rita. With other parishes still reducing the number of Masses or requiring signups for limited slots, Catholics traveled to Saint Rita from all over Northern Virginia. Even my non-Catholic parents, tired of watching virtual Presbyterian services from their D.C. living room, started coming to Saint Rita most weeks. People heard about the church that kept the doors open. Lo and behold, that’s where they wanted to be.

In less than two years, Mass attendance went up between fifteen and twenty percent, and while other parishes have since fully re-opened, many families have opted to stay at Saint Rita. Collections are up, while other parishes have seen declines. The parish school, which recently shifted to a classical model, is more popular than ever. And parish participation is breaking records. Case in point: before the pandemic, Saint Rita held an overnight adoration on the first Friday of the month. Now it’s weekly, running from 8:00 P.M. to 8:00 A.M. Adoration is hard to organize, yet we have no problem getting the faithful there—even at three in the morning. Saint Rita proves the power and pull of authentic faith.

In the normal course of things, the bishop reassigned Father Gee to a different parish, like Fathers Scalia and Donahue before him. Our current pastor, Father Christopher Christensen, is cut from the same cloth and committed to staying the course. The Saint Rita of 2023 is like the Saint Rita I first visited in 2011, only more so. The preaching is powerful. The focus is on the sacraments. The faith is alive. And the average age is, if anything, even younger, since so many Catholic families are coming with so many kids. The back of the church has a choir of crying infants—including, often, at least one of my own—drowning out homilies and hymns alike.

In 2021, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal in which I described St. Rita’s faith-fueled growth during the pandemic. I wrote: “in a time of sickness, it offered spiritual health, and in a time of darkness, it offered the light of hope.” In the weeks that followed, I received many calls and emails and letters from Catholics across America, most of them wishing their own parishes were so vibrant. Many asked me: How can we do what Saint Rita has done, and bring back life and faith and youth and hope?

The answer came in another letter, this one from a parish priest in Pennsylvania. He told me Saint Rita was his home parish, where he’d been confirmed on September 19, 1969. It was booming then, much as it is now, and the priest attributed its success to the “hope founded upon our Eucharistic Lord, may His Presence always be praised.” That is indeed why Saint Rita is flourishing. Ours is a parish of authentic, orthodox, Christ-centered faith, which transforms your own heart and turns others’ heads. May it always be so.

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Stephen Ford is the founder of West Exec Writing. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.