St. Mary of Sorrows

By Marian Betancourt, Contributor
December / January 2005

When you walk among the headstones of the hilltop graveyard of St. Mary of Sorrows, the first Catholic Church built in Fairfax Station,Virginia, you can’t help but notice all the Irish names and the counties in Ireland where the deceased were born.

Among the many, there’s John Cashion (d. 1882) from Co. Clare, and Patrick Crowell (d. 1891) of Co. Roscommon. Each Memorial Day, following a Patriotic Mass and Blessing of the Graves, the parish Hibernians place Irish and American flags on these graves.

The church itself is a white clapboard structure with a high steeple. It is also a national landmark and a stop along Virginia’s Civil War Trail because of its role as a battle site and field hospital.

In 1838, two Irish farm families, the Hamills and the Cunninghams, donated land for the church. But it wasn’t until the the late 1850s, when the Orange and Alexandria Railroad advertised for Irish immigrants to lay track in the area, that it was built. These same railroad workers pitched in to build the church.

Less than a year after its completion the Civil War came to St. Mary’s. The battles of Manassas, Bull Run Creek, and Chantily (Ox Hill) were fought in the area and the church soon became a field hospital. During the course of one battle, an estimated 8,000 wounded were treated on the grounds.

Because it was adjacent to Fairfax Station (now a museum), wounded soldiers were laid out on the slope between the church and the train station. The depot became a transfer point between spectators coming to view the war and the wounded returning from battle.

One of those spectators, Clara Barton, then a clerk at the United States Patent Office, decided to help and soon gathered a group of volunteers to tend to the wounded and dying. Her experiences at Fairfax Station later prompted her to establish a civilian society, which became the American Red Cross.

During the Battle of Cedar Mountain, with 20,000 Confederate troops nearing Fairfax Station, Barton, the doctors, and volunteers remained until the last of the wounded were evacuated from the church.

Barton watched from the window of the last train to pull out as Confederate soldiers set fire to the depot. (The depot would be rebuilt and destroyed four more times before the war was over.)

“The Battle of Cedar Mountain was not the end of the war for the church,” said Jack Devaney, 70, an engineer and co-founder of the parish’s Ancient Order of Hibernians. “Control of the church routinely changed hands, but was most often held by the Union Army.” But not always.

On August 8, 1864, a skirmish took place between two New York cavalry detachments and Colonel John Mosby, the infamous Confederate known as the Gray Ghost, and his Raiders. According to A.O.H. historian Robert Hickey, the Union Cavalry Captains Joseph Fleming and John McMenamin were both Irish immigrants. Nobody knows exactly how the skirmish on the church grounds began (there was a later court of inquiry) but when it was over, Mosby had killed or captured most of the Union troops as well as their horses.

St. Mary of Sorrows has changed very little in physical appearance since 1860. The old bell is still in use, but the pews that were burned for fire wood during the Civil War were later replaced by President Ulysses S. Grant, who often traveled by train to a nearby resort.

In the 1870s, parishioners began an annual picnic, first as a Fourth of July celebration, then, after 1894, it transferred to Labor Day. It is the oldest outdoor social function in Fairfax County, attended by over 10,000 people.

The Hibernians — both the Father Corby Division and the Alice Hamill women’s division — set up booths with educational materials about the Irish and the historical background to St. Mary of Sorrows, which is a thriving parish of more than 3,600 families, many of them Irish-American.

John Hamill, who died in 1996, was the last of the original founding family. He and his brother George were both members of the A.O.H., and Devaney had many conversations with John before he died.

“He told me the parish records were all removed by one of the Dutch priests and have never been recovered and that the rectory at one time was a sporting club. I wish I could remember the exact story as John told it to me, but late hours, beer and old age do muddle things up a bit.”

In 1979, a new and larger parish center was built a mile away. Once the new center was operational, parishioners began restoring the historic church, which was placed on the National Register in 1976. Devaney goes to daily mass in the church with his wife Eileen, who supervised the restoration. ♦

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