Years of Rejuvenation

Contents

St. Mary's chancel during the early stages of remodeling.
St. Mary’s chancel during the early stages of remodeling.

The 1970s

It was with high hopes that St. Mary’s called the Rev. Paul A. Bankston as its new rector. Prior to the call. Bishop Gibson had written a letter to Fr. Bankston spelling out the situation at St. Mary’s.

…St. Mary’s is attempting a come-back from its unhappy failure by experimenting for three years on borrowed money. They are really in no position of communicant strength or pledge operating income to call any man to a full-time position. Therefore, the normal, and canonical expectation of life tenure is simply not in the picture. The experiment can fail. At the end of three years St. Mary’s may have to close its doors. We must recognize that, regardless of the talent and hard work of a new full-time clergyman, past history, bad reputation and bitter feelings may make a viable come-back impossible. Please understand me. I do not expect this unhappy end or I would not agree to the experiment. There is a real challenging opportunity and there is plenty of room in Arlington for a full St. Mary’s without detracting from the other Episcopal Churches. I want someone of your abilities to accept this challenge, and I shall support him in every possible way…

The Rev. Bankston accepted the challenge, and St. Mary’s small congregation greeted him in February 1969. His rectorship started out auspiciously, but then, sadly, he became terminally ill and died on August 24, 1971.

The Rev. Frederick Wandall, a priest on the faculty of St. Stephen’s School, who had been assisting St. Mary’s during the rector’s illness, was appointed rector pro tempore until a new rector could be called.

Membership had increased slightly, but the financial situation had not greatly improved. The lease with the Episcopal Academy was not renewed in 1970, and the academy ceased to exist. The parish house was, instead, leased to a music school.

The Rev. Kenneth C. Eade, rector St. Mary's 1972-83.
The Rev. Kenneth C. Eade, rector St. Mary’s 1972-83.

The Rev. Kenneth C. Eade became the rector of St. Mary’s on July 1, 1972. Fr. Eade had been rector of St. Luke’s Parish, La Union, New Mexico.

St. Mary’s celebrated two 50th anniversaries: one in 1976 to commemorate the first service held in the Carne School in 1926; and the other in 1977 to mark the first service held in the original church building in 1927. A freedom memorial fund drive was launched in 1976 to pay off the mortgage on the main church building. Sixty-five parishioners raised $50,000 for the fund, demonstrating a strong devotion to St. Mary’s. The mortgage was burned at the second 50th anniversary celebration.

Throughout the 1970s St. Mary’s music program flourished under the direction of organist/choirmasters David Ritchie (1971-1972) and Fr. Thomas Friedkin (1972-1980). Notably, Fr. Friedkin initiated a series of Bach cantatas by the choirs of St. Mary’s in cooperation with other Episcopal church choirs of Arlington and a number of professional instrumentalists. The first presentation was so successful that Fr. Friedkin received a request from a Washington Radio Station to record the next cantata for broadcast throughout the area.

The vestry accepted Fr. F. Hugh Evan’s offer in 1978 to serve St. Mary’s as assistant to the rector. He had retired that year as priest-in-charge of the Church of Our Savior in Oatlands, Va., and he served at St. Mary’s until June 1984.

The Women of St. Mary’s, formerly St. Mary’s Auxiliary Guild, had disbanded in 1971. (It had never really recovered from the troubled years.) But the arts and crafts guild, under the leadership of Lois Kirchner, continued to thrive. A wide array of arts and crafts were represented in the guild, and between 1976 and 1980 the group raised more than $15,000 at its annual Christmas boutique. The guild made generous gifts to the church, which were much needed in those lean financial years.

In 1979 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the Proposed Book of Common Prayer as the official Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church. The convention authorized the continued use of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, with certain recommendations and subject to guidelines by each diocese.

Most of St. Mary’s parishioners were traditionalists in their preference for the traditional liturgy and the 1928 Prayer Book; they were not, however, inflexible. A small group of conservative parishioners, on the other hand, was strongly opposed to any change in the liturgy. Fr. Eade also opposed the introduction of the 1979 Prayer Book. With the approval of the vestry, he succeeded in obtaining temporary permission from Bishop Hall for St. Mary’s to continue using the 1928 Prayer Book within the bishop’s overall guidelines.

The 1980s

St. Mary’s still had difficulty in meeting its operating budget from year to year. Capt. Robert Minton chaired a property committee in 1980 to assess the feasibility of selling the school property across Glebe Road to pay off parish debts. The committee presented its findings to the congregation, which reluctantly approved the sale.

The property was sold in August 1981. As part of the agreement, St. Mary’s retained permanent use of the land underlying a parking lot of 40 spaces on the property. At settlement the church received a large down payment and a four-year secured note for the balance. After paying off the mortgage on the property and other settlement expenses, the church established St. Mary’s Foundation in January 1982 and endowed it with most of the residual proceeds from the sale of the property. The principal was preserved and the interest made available to the vestry once a year — 40 percent for outreach/charity and the balance for the program and capital expenses. Nevertheless, the interest income from the foundation could not cover the shortfall in the annual operating budgets.

Fr. Eade retired in April 1983. Although he had inherited a dispirited church, he had made a good start in the healing process during his rectorship. Reversing the downward spiral, he had increased membership by one third. The congregation was made up primarily of older people. (Many young people with children had transferred to St. Peter’s during the troubled years.) The average age of the congregation, according to one parishioner’s “guesstimate,” was about 60. Age, however, did not impede the congregation’s resolve to keep St. Mary’s doors open whatever the cost.

The Rev. Porter H. Brooks, a retired U.S. Army chaplain, served as interim rector after Fr. Eade’s retirement. During the interim, the vestry petitioned Bishop Hall to continue using the 1928 Prayer Book within the Bishop’s previous guidelines. The bishop denied the petition and stated in a letter to the senior warden that “… It is my godly judgment that the use of the 1928 Prayer Book cease before the arrival of your new rector and that the 1979 Prayer Book be in place by that time and used at all Services …”

The vestry acquiesced and in a letter to members and friends of St. Mary’s presented its policy: “… As Episcopalians, whether confirmed or received into The Episcopal Church, each of us at that confirmation or reception accepted, implicitly, obedience to the doctrines, worship and discipline of the Episcopal Church. As Episcopalians we cannot do otherwise.”

Several parishioners wrote letters to the vestry protesting the decision to implement the bishop’s directive. Some felt so strongly that they chose to leave St. Mary’s Church. The number of pledge units dropped from 90 in 1982 to 76 in 1983, and the amount pledged also fell. By 1986, however, the pledged income surpassed pro-controversy levels considerably.

The Rev. Andrew T. P. Merrow accepted the call to serve St. Mary’s as permanent rector effective March 5, 1985. A graduate of the Virginia Theological Seminary, Fr. Merrow had been the assistant rector of Christ Church, Alexandria, before coming to St. Mary’s. He was a young man, and with his enthusiasm, empathy, and strong leadership skills, he began to attract many new members, particularly young couples with children.

The 1990s

In the early years of Fr. Merrow’s rectorship the church still operated in the red. But by 1991 the number of members and communicants had nearly doubled, and the financial situation turned around. In a memorandum early that year, Fr. Merrow noted that for the first time in recent history St. Mary’s was operating in the black. All the same, capital reserves had been significantly reduced to compensate for operational losses and to fund various much-needed capital improvements. Some additional debt had been undertaken to add a tower to the church to house an elevator for universal access. Plans were underway in 1991 to increase capital reserves, and a planning committee was established to explore the future growth of the parish.

As the number of children in the church school increased, the old problem of space returned. The church no longer had land on the west side of Glebe Road, other than the small parking lot. St. Mary’s seized the opportunity in 1993 to purchase land, with a house, across North 26th Street from the church. At about the same time, the church was notified of a very sizable bequest left by deceased parishioners John and Olive Paca. The bequest included cash, securities, and a house on Williamsburg Boulevard.

As the need for more space became critical, a capital campaign was initiated in 1995 to raise money to remodel the existing building and to construct a two-story wing on the south, or 26th Street, end of the building. By the end of 1996 the capital campaign committee had raised more than $1.1 million — enough to go ahead with the construction and renovation program. To minimize disruption during the building project, the vestry opted for a 10-month construction schedule, requiring the congregation to vacate the church for that time. Fr. Merrow, assisted by the Rev. Walter Eversley and the Rev. William Stafford, presided over a ground-breaking ceremony on June 29, 1997. Also participating were 5-year-old Delaney Smeage-Butler, representing future congregations, and Ella Lathem, who had been confirmed at St. Mary’s Church in 1928.

The Rev. Andrew T. P. Merrow.
The Rev. Andrew T. P. Merrow.

St. Mary’s was fortunate in obtaining use of facilities of the former Christ United Methodist Church on Lee Highway during the construction period. The first service at its temporary home was on Sunday, July 6, 1997.

Easter services were held in the renovated St. Mary’s Church in 1998. The renovation included reversing the interior orientation of the nave so that the altar and baptismal font were at the north end and a new organ and choir stalls were at the south end. The undercroft of the building had been further partitioned to include eight classrooms and two nursery/play rooms, but had retained the existing restrooms and mechanical equipment rooms. The ancient heating and cooling systems had been replaced. The new wing housed a chapel/columbarium, a large multipurpose room, and a kitchen on the upper level and six offices and two conference/meeting rooms on the lower floor.

Outreach became a primary focus of St. Mary’s under Fr. Merrow. In fact, the revitalization of the outreach ministry was perhaps the most important development at St. Mary’s during his early rectorship. By the early part of the decade, the vestry designated 25 percent of the annual budget to outreach – 12 percent allocated for the diocesan pledge and 13 percent for other organizations. Some of those early recipients included Samaritan Ministries, the Arlington Community Temporary Shelter, and the Northern Virginia AIDS Ministry. St. Mary’s was also instrumental in Samaritan’s expansion into Northern Virginia in 1995.

Other ministries grew and started. Trained lay Eucharistic ministers introduced a new ministry to St Mary’s in 1993, taking the Holy Eucharist to communicants who were unable to come to regular church services on Sundays. Then, in 1995, members of a new cooking group began a ministry of preparing two home-cooked meals per week for parishioners facing hardships. Several other small groups began activities relating to adult education and fellowship, including discipleship groups, neighborhood groups, and Koinonia dinner groups.

The altar guild undertook a long-term project, starting the previous decade, to make and install needlepoint kneelers for the sanctuary. Dedicated needle-workers, who were members and friends of St. Mary’s, devoted long hours to stitching canvasses that carried words from The Magnificat, the Song of Mary. Mrs. Billie Conkling of Baltimore, Md., designed and painted the canvasses, and Elizabeth Rollings, chair of the Needlework Projects at the Washington Cathedral, supervised the handwork. The beautiful kneelers were dedicated at an Evensong on the first Sunday of Advent in November 1990.

The vestry authorized a change in the schedule of Sunday services in 1995, adding an adult forum and a children’s chapel as part of an expanded Christian education program. The youth group also became more active at that time, and senior high school members participated in mission trips to paint and repair the homes of less fortunate people. They traveled to a different destination each year to work, joining 300 to 400 youths from other churches around the country.

The Rev. Andrew T. P. Merrow talks to parishoners.
The Rev. Andrew T. P. Merrow talks to parishoners.

Fr. Merrow also brought a succession of outstanding clergy, organists, and choirmasters to St. Mary’s. Clergy included the Rev. Zachary Fleetwood, the Rev. William Parnell, the Rev. Michael Robinson, and the Rev. John Ohmer. Crafting St. Mary’s music were Barry Baltzley, David Snyder, and Kyle Ritter. The organ had badly deteriorated during the lean years, but repairs were made in 1989 to bring it up to “acceptable” condition until the purchase of a new organ could be funded.

As the turn of the new century approached, St. Mary’s made great strides toward reaching another high and becoming a leader again in the diocese. Fr. Merrow reflected this in his own work outside of St. Mary’s, as he headed several prestigious diocesan committees, including the Standing Committee, the Resolutions Committee, and Examining Chaplains. He also served as dean of Region III of the diocese.