Until 1981, Catholics residing in Middlesex County, Virginia had to make a choice on Sunday morning. They could drive many miles to Catholic churches in Gloucester, Kilmarnock, West Point or Tappahannock. They could worship with their non-Catholic friends and neighbors at the church of another faith. Or they could stay at home.
Many years previously there had been attempts to bring the Catholics of the community together, beginning in the late 1940s when a priest from West Point would spread the word from a truck with a loudspeaker. During the 50s and early 60s, a Mass was held in Urbanna, first in the movie theater, which was sometimes in sorry shape after the Saturday night movie, and later at the Urbanna firehouse. There, Jennie Sale would get up at 4:30 AM to set up chairs for the 7:00 AM Mass. Mary Bray and Florine Erdt were in charge of setting up the altar. Father Wharton, Father Jackowicz and Father Bogart all gave these services to the Catholics of Middlesex to help them have a Mass in their county. However, by the 1970s Catholic services in Middlesex were still not consistent.
The first hint that a permanent Church in Middlesex might be possible came in the summer of 1980. This promise arrived thanks to the efforts of the new assistant pastor of St. Therese Church in Gloucester and the spirit that he found among the small group of Catholics in Middlesex. Father Jack Dougher donned his Panama hat, climbed on his moped, and conducted a door-to-door survey of Middlesex County in an effort to learn how many Catholics truly lived here and to gauge their level of commitment for the tremendous task of building a church of their own.
They took the first step in September 1980. A Saturday evening Mass was held at Zoar Baptist Church in Deltaville. Seventy-five people attended. The Catholic Mass had come to Middlesex, if only on the second Saturday of every month. Two months later, a second Mass was added at Christchurch School Chapel on the fourth Saturday of the month. In early summer 1981, a weekly Mass was begun at Lower Methodist Church in Hartfield.
Until this time, decisions such as who would read at Mass or what hymns would be sung were decided by Father Dougher and assigned just before Mass. New committees were formed which took charge of these functions, bringing in a new level of organization. Father Dougher taught each new ministerial group their procedures and was the spiritual leader of the fledgling mission.
On October 20, 1981, the Middlesex Catholic Community, as they were now known, was able to worship on Sunday morning when they moved to the newly renovated Freeshade Community Center in Syringa. The arrangement with Freeshade allowed them to use the facility for the entire day. Thus, most committee meetings and social gatherings were scheduled for Sunday to get maximum use of their rental dollar.
They were also permitted to leave one piece of furniture in the building all the time. John Baker made a movable altar with interior shelves to hold the necessities for celebrating Mass and the growing belongings of the new church. At Freeshade, worship meant much more than attending Mass. People arrived early to set up the altar and chairs. After Mass, which was celebrated by Father Dougher, the parishioners would get up and pass the time of day while taking their folding chairs to stack against the wall to get ready for coffee and a social hour. Everything was put back inside the altar and moved out of harm’s way. Freeshade may have been the church on Sunday by rental arrangement; however it still was not the church’s building. Since it was not available on holy days, Father Jack held those Masses wherever he could, at other churches or in the homes of parishioners. The Catholic Community was particularly warmly welcomed by Edward Meeks “Pope” Gregory, Christchurch School Chaplain. Children (now grown) and their parents remember fondly his surprise of an Easter egg tree at the altar.
Many of the present traditions began at Freeshade. The children’s Christmas pageant began there with homemade nativity figures made from poster board. No one who was there will forget the year of the blizzard. Strong winds shook the building and kept blowing the door open during Mass, knocking the nativity figures over. It was so cold that the poinsettias did not survive the Mass. The first real music program began at Freeshade. On stage every Sunday were the “Edna Duel Singers” led by Chuck Walsh. The piano at Freeshade was not quite of concert quality; however Earl Fitchett, the Baptist husband of a parishioner, could really coax the hymns out of it.
People in the county still talk about the first fund-raiser, the famous quail dinner. Alma and Frank DeLaura had lots of quail running around as a result of one of Frank’s projects. They donated the quail to the church and women of the parish spent weeks plucking and freezing quail in preparation for gourmet dining and take-out.
On November 24, 1981, the Development /Planning Committee met to start the process of becoming a parish. The site of the future church was purchased a month later. John Baker told the story of how his car broke down on the road across from the present location of the church and he noticed a “For Sale” sign on the property. The property met the criteria Bishop Sullivan had established for a church location, and John made the inquiry. The seller was in a rush to sell and willing to take a lower offer from a church. So attractive was the price that Father Schaefer of St. Therese purchased the land with that year’s Cathedraticum. Visitation subsequently repaid the loan by paying St. Therese’s Cathedraticum to the Diocese.
On February 6, 1982, Bishop Sullivan came to Middlesex to meet with members of the new Middlesex Catholic Community and St. Therese to discuss plans for the new church and to visit the site. The Bishop needed to be convinced. At a lunch meeting at the home of Lynn and John Baker, the Bishop was served oyster stew, known to be his favorite. Lynn told him that in addition to all their other resources, they had a group of skilled people who were willing to work.
Bishop Sullivan gave the Middlesex Catholic Community official designation as a mission of St. Therese and directed the members to elect a Parish Council. On February 21st, the congregation met after Mass to discuss the meeting with Bishop Sullivan, plans for the election of the Council, and the task of raising funds. The first Parish Council, elected soon afterward, consisted of the following: Lynn Baker, President; Marie Staib, Vice President; and committee chairs Robert Nielsen, Administration; Beryl O’Connor, Liturgy; Charles Walsh, Christian Education; Al Watkins, Social Ministry; Joseph Hock, Jr., Youth; Mike McMahon, Member at Large; and Father Jack Dougher.
On September 26, 1982, the Middlesex Catholic Community held a Family Picnic at Freeshade Community Center. They extended an invitation to all area Catholics, their families and house guests. Softball, volleyball and horseshoes were to have been the order of the day but rain sent everyone indoors. The group continued to grow.
On July 1, 1983, the Middlesex Catholic Community officially became a Parish, and was named by Bishop Sullivan the Church of the Visitation. By this time the Catholics in Mathews had sought identity for a church of their own. The two counties became independent parishes served by one pastor. A bishop had once told Father Dougher that he was the only priest in the state with two missions and no church.
In March 1985, work began on the new church. The plans, drawn by Brooks & Elliott of Tappahannock, were for a 4,400 square foot building which would include the sanctuary and sacristy, a small chapel, an office for the pastor, a conference room and a kitchen. The parishioners fulfilled Lynn Baker’s promise to the Bishop that they would contribute their own labor, skill, and energy, as well with overseeing the planning and construction. The building progressed at a rapid pace. The site was prepared on March 10 and the footings and foundation poured the following week. By April 7 the sanctuary slab was poured. The first load of lumber arrived on April 20, and the framing was almost completed by the end of the month. The trusses were installed, spaced and reinforced during the first five days of May. The back shingles were completed on May 15th. By May 20th half of the front wall had been bricked and electrical decisions were being made.
The first social event occurred on June 30th when members of the Church of the Visitation gathered for a reception in their unfinished church. Plans were made for the dedication. Brooks & Elliott had finished their work; now it was the parishioners’ project. Carl Lorber and John Baker built all the interior fittings. Many hours were spent getting the kitchen equipped and organized. The Stations of the Cross were hung. The altar, built by local craftsman Paul Sherwood, was installed and the hymns rehearsed. On September 8, 1985, the Dedication Mass was celebrated by Bishop Sullivan, with the children of the parish helping to lead the Entrance Processional. Carl Lorber presented the key to the Church and the building plans to Bishop Sullivan. Following the Mass was a reception and the following Sunday an Open House was held for the community. The words “May Christ find a dwelling place of faith in our hearts” summarized the emotions felt by members of OUR new church.
The Church’s Ministries:
Since the dedication of the Church of the Visitation, there have been many changes and much growth. Over the years each new parishioner has come came with his or her own special talent or gift, which has always been just what the parish needed at that time. From those early committees, active, living ministries have evolved.
The Liturgy/ Worship Committee now includes Greeters who welcome us with smiles each Sunday, Ushers, Lectors, Community Leaders, and Sacristans, as well as Eucharistic Ministers, Altar Servers, and a Choir. Music has developed from a few dedicated individuals into a fine group of singers, often accompanied by an ensemble, who also bring their music to the area nursing homes.
Our ministries have changed as our parish has changed, reflecting the skills and merits of our parishioners. The parish children’s religious education, guided for many years by Eileen O’Brien, has developed from home instruction to a regular program in an added wing of classrooms. Now our Christian Formation Program includes Adult R.C.I.A. and the children’s Faith Formation program. Parish Life has grown from a few women serving coffee after Mass to a group, guided for many years by Peg Meushaw, which routinely hosts large receptions for parish celebrations and funerals. The Knights of Columbus have an active role in sponsoring parish celebrations, often in conjunction with our sister parish Frances de Sales. A Knitting Ministry has developed to knit prayer shawls while sharing companionship and prayer. Our Peace and Justice Committee includes active participation in Hands Across Middlesex, supporting the county-wide organization’s food pantry, clothing barn, yard sales and other programs for the needy. The parish has also been involved in a developing prison ministry, doing outreach throughout the year, and with gifts for inmates’ children at Christmas.
When the diocese began its Haiti Twinning Project in 1985, the Church of the Visitation twinned with the parish of St. Michaels in Boucan Carre, Haiti where we helped sponsor a water system, a bakery, hospital, and school children’s uniforms and lunches. In 2010 the Haiti outreach shifted to the Maison Fortuné Orphanage in Hinche, and included a visit to Haiti by parish youth and adults. In November 2017, the parish changed its outreach to build and support St. Noa’s School in Kitangira Village in southern Uganda, the home village of our priest, where young students were receiving their education in a ramshackle building subject to torrential rains and searing heat. Older children had to walk 5 miles each way for their education. After the completion of St. Noa’s school with a modern kitchen and bathroom facilities, by 2020 parishioners had also raised about $60,000 to assist with operational expenses. They worked to sponsor children, provide playgrounds and security, and assure the teachers of living quarters.
Our ministry of Church Facility and Grounds began with some of those individuals who helped build the original church, but now includes many volunteers who ensure the maintenance of our gardens. Our Pastoral Care Ministry continues to make sure that those who cannot attend our church in person are nevertheless included in our faith community. Throughout the years we have been led by an active Parish Council, which has overseen continued growth of the parish. During all of this we have been guided by the Finance Council, which oversees the monetary operations of the parish and insures fiscal responsibility and good stewardship of the parish funds.
Major fundraising events have developed from the strengths of our parishioners: For many years our August Yard Sale, led first by Carol McPherson and later by Jack and Louise Petralia, raised money for community outreach and church needs. Now our yard sale is held in conjunction with the Cryer Center and Hands Across Middlesex.
The Father John Boddie Memorial Golf Tournament, held annually in May, supports additional community endeavors and contributes to the building fund of the church. In addition, the Father John Boddie Scholarship Fund supports the education of our college-bound youth through funds raised by ads in the church bulletin and invested with the River County Community Foundation.
In October 1989, Father Dan Bond took the place of our founding pastor, Father Jack Dougher. In June of 1997 Father John Boddie became the third pastor to lead our parish. Father John’s guidance led us through the next years of continued growth, and his example inspired us as he struggled with the cancer which would take him to our Lord in May 2009. His living and dying with cancer was a parallel image of Christ’s passion and death. He called us to trust and believe in Jesus, and taught us that “church” is more than the bricks and mortar of the structure itself.
In August 1997 the parish was blessed to have a retired priest, Father Robert C. Nash, join us not only as a member of our parish, but also as a valuable and highly regarded asset, often and ably assisting in the absence of our priest until his death in July, 2012 at age 88.
In July of 2009 we welcomed Father Robert Cummins, Jr. as the fourth leader of our parish community. His patience and understanding carried a grieving parish through a difficult transition after the death of Father John, and he gave us his example when facing his own medical challenges. Father Robert shared his long-time commitment to the Maison Fortuné Orphanage with us, leading a mission trip of youth and adults to Haiti.
In August 2016 we welcomed Fr. Gerald Kaggwa as the fifth spiritual leader of the Church of the Visitation. Fr. Gerry’s guidance has inspired our parishioners to raise funds to build and support St. Noa’s school in his home village in Uganda. Under his leadership, the community has also begun the work to build a new worship area. During the Covid 19 pandemic of 2020, Fr. Gerry has guided the parish with an online Mass three times a week, giving comfort to those unable to attend in person.
The Church of the Visitation has been blessed by the leadership of our priests.
Bishop Sullivan named us well as the Church of the Visitation. Since our inception, our church has been privileged to welcome visitors from our local area, from all over the United States, and even from other countries. We have celebrated Mass with our guests and invited them to feast at our table, even publishing three cookbooks in order to share our hospitality. We have celebrated weddings of children who have grown up in the community, baptisms of their children and grandchildren, and funerals of beloved parishioners. And during our celebrations, the Visitation family occasionally burst the seams of our repainted, re-carpeted, multi-purpose worship space.
During the early years, changes in the church included a classroom wing for our growing youth population, an outdoor pavilion for our wonderful community picnics, and several outbuildings to store donations for our famous summer yard sale.
The Building Committee’s work resulted in the construction of a parish addition that is aesthetically pleasing and a source of spiritual enrichment. A two-phase plan was developed, with the first phase focused on the enlargement and renovation of the worship space. The second included construction of a new sanctuary. The phase one building addition was formally blessed and dedicated by the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, Bishop Emeritus of Richmond, on September 21, 2008. The parish also celebrated its Silver Jubilee on that date. Remarkably, while our parish addition and building expansion cost $1,060,000, because of the generosity of our parishioners and benefactors, the debt was paid off by 2013.
In the spring of 2018, we began designing the new worship area, to include a new sanctuary and conversion of the present space into a fellowship hall. Meetings with the Diocese led to preliminary approval, a two-year pledge campaign, and the hiring of a general contractor in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 has slowed the final stages of Diocesan approval, as well as our participation with the Diocesan Bicentennial celebration which began in January 2020.
The unrelenting faith of the Catholic population in Middlesex County in the early 1980s led to the establishment of a vibrant and dynamic Roman Catholic community that eagerly seeks to grow and flourish into the future. It is a living, growing community. The spirit which built the Church of the Visitation continues.