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Historic Falls Church Episcopal Celebrates 250 Years Sunday

A GROUP OF SOLDIERS huddle outside the Falls Church, used as a Union hospital during the Civil War, sometime between 1861 and 1865. The church is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its historic building, shown here, first opened on Dec. 20, 1769. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The congregation of the City of Falls Church’s iconic, living historical monument, the Falls Church Episcopal Church, will celebrate the church’s 250th anniversary at a series of special events at the church site in the center of the City this Sunday.

The original church was opened in 1734 and the existing historic church building, since renovated and still fully functional, now one of the oldest church buildings in the U.S., was opened on Dec. 20, 1769, prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, under the leadership of George Washington and George Mason among others. Mason was elected a vestryman of the Falls Church in 1745 and Washington in 1762.

In a proclamation signed by current Falls Church Mayor David Tarter at this Monday’s City Council meeting, it is noted that the Declaration of Independence was read to the public from the steps of the church in 1776 and the church served as a recruiting location during the Revolutionary War.

During the Civil War, the building served as a stable and a hospital for soldiers of both armies, and the church’s graveyard is the final resting place of many prominent area citizens over the years, as well as soldiers from both sides in the Civil War, including John Read, a Union soldier who, because he educated African-American youth in the area, was singled out by troops from the Confederacy for capture and hanging.

The writings of the immortal Walt Whitman, who worked as a nurse during the Civil War, includes a poem, “The Ranks Hard-Prest, the Road Unknown,” about his experience at a Northern Virginia church turned into a hospital following a very bloody battle during the Civil War. The church was unnamed but, if not the Falls Church Episcopal per se, describes a scene that was surely identical with what often occurred at the Falls Church site.
Following the Civil War, the surrounding community, the town established in 1875 and the City established in 1948, took the name of the Falls Church in honor of the church.

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The original church building was preserved and enlarged in 1959 by Virginia architect Milton Gregg, and throughout its history has been a center of Falls Church community life, and, as stated in the proclamation, “a witness to key events in the evolution of the Falls Church community and the nation, and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.”

The church’s role in the surrounding Falls Church community has been especially strong since the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia reclaimed the church property seven years ago from a group of defectors who voted to leave the denomination in 2006 but continued to occupy the church property. Those defectors opposed the ordination of women and were especially incensed by the election of an openly-gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, as a bishop in the national Episcopal denomination in 2003.

A Virginia Supreme Court ordered the removal of the defectors from the historic premises to, now, a new church location on Arlington Boulevard in Fairfax County.

The “continuing Episcopal” congregation of the historic Falls Church that was invited to worship, organize and maintain it distinctive identity in the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church across the street, returned to the historic location, and its growth has been remarkable the last half-dozen years under the leadership of Rector John Ohmer, who left to a new assignment in Asheville, North Carolina, earlier this fall. It is now being led by a new interim minister, the Rev. Andy Anderson and the associate minister the Rev. Kelly Moughty.

The church’s current congregation has played a major role in acknowledging and supporting pro-civil rights events in the City of Falls Church, hosting annual marches and seminars sponsored by the Tinner Hill Foundation on Martin Luther King Day (including one planned for next month) and the foundation’s Social Justice Committee’s co-sponsorship with the Falls Church News-Press of a panel presentation in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, recognized as the starting point of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

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The church has also installed a stone seeking forgiveness for the deployment of African-American slaves in the construction of the original church.

The main greeting on its website reads, “No matter who you are or where you are in your spiritual journey, you are welcome here.”