Sunday, October 16, 2022
By: John Miller, Rector Emeritus
On a hot, rainy August afternoon in 1984, shortly after I became the rector of St. Mary’s, I drove to Hollywood Cemetery after church. I went there because I was on a mission: I felt called to locate the burial site of Mary Mitchell Allen, the child whose short life set all of this [gesture to the worship space] in motion. I had first heard of her at Tuckahoe Plantation, the place where she was born on Christmas Eve, 1864. We had gathered there on the 100th anniversary of the dedication and consecration of our historic church, which we lovingly call “Little St. Mary’s.” Our Diocesan Bishop, Robert B. Hall, had come to celebrate the Eucharist as well as to confirm and receive new communicants on the grounds of the plantation. My late wife Margie, St. Mary’s organist, and I, the new youth minister, were among those received. We were brand new Episcopalians.
At the welcoming announcements, our Rector, Holt Souder, spoke of Mary Allen’s importance to our parish. He commended the newly-published centennial history by William T. Carrington. Naturally, I purchased a fresh copy of the book, and Bill Carrington signed it. In the succeeding years I had read the history, and was drawn to little Mary’s story. However, I hadn’t noticed the footnote that recorded her gravesite at Hollywood. I, like many others, mistakenly assumed that she was interred at Tuckahoe. As the new Rector, it dawned on me that I needed to find Mary’s resting place. So, on that steamy afternoon, Margie and I asked a security guard for directions. His help was vague enough to send us on a cross-country hunt as the rain (and my frustration) intensified. Then, from a distance, my fellow-missioner called out, “I think I’ve found her.”
I ran through the graveyard and entered a gated, iron-fenced section set aside for the Mitchell family. And there she was, buried in the same grave as her mother (Virginia Mitchell Allen) and her father (Richard S. Allen). All three names were on the marker, but there was a separate stone for her – a small granite block engraved with the name, “MARY.” As we gazed at the simple, holy site, I said a prayer of thanksgiving. Here lay our forbearer in this faith adventure.
Mary was the greatest gift that Richard and Virginia could have received that Christmas. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to suppose that they were elated by her birth. The name they chose for her bespoke their belief: “Mary” would be their living reminder of the faith of her namesake – the young Judean girl whose belief was sufficient to accept the angel’s word that she would bear the Son of God. That is one way that her name could have arisen; we cannot know for certain. But whether the name Mary was a family inheritance or one referring to Christmas is not finally important. “Mary” became for Virginia and Richard a saintly name, one that shone like a star, making their spirits soar.
She was a child sent from God at the darkest time of the bleak mid-winter of 1864. War had depleted everything but hope. This part of the world was on the verge of collapse.
Sad to say, by the next August 14, 1865 Mary was gone. She was 7 1⁄2 months old. Richmond was a charred ruin and everything had collapsed. Her tragic death from causes unknown must have been devastating. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the grieving family had plunged into depression and cursed the darkness.
But that is not what happened. Mary’s life shed enough light and love to inspire a mission of faith, of which we are a vital part. After burying their little girl at Hollywood, the Allens persevered in faith, expressing their gratitude to God for bringing Mary into their life in a bold, enduring way. With permission from the Diocese of Virginia, they built a mission church on River Road – a neat, pretty little Carpenter Gothic jewel, set on an embankment for travelers to see and neighboring farmers, and later coal miners, to cherish as their spiritual home.
Mary’s brief, but influential, life is memorialized in the naming of that historic mission church. But “St. Mary’s” is more than a memorial to the little girl that graced the Allen family for less than a year at the Civil War’s end. The name simultaneously links precious Mary Allen to Mary the Mother of our Lord.
The Allens’ faith and positive spirit raised the $1,500 to build St. Mary’s during Reconstruction, when the local economy was on life support. It was a stunning accomplishment. Their confidence attracted others who had the faith to take a risk. Among those others were the Wickhams of nearby Woodside, who donated the land, as well as oaks, hemlocks, and spruce trees to adorn the churchyard for St. Mary’s dedication and consecration on Holy Saturday, in April 1878. The Right Reverend Francis Whittle, 5th Bishop of Virginia, must have been excited by the prospect of a new congregation since he agreed to do the service on the day before Easter, one of the busiest, most hallowed of all days. Clearly, he recognized the faith that persevered through grief to build the little church; a feat all the more miraculous, given the area’s environment, which, in his journal, he called “destitute” country.
On October 11, 1992, The Right Reverend Peter James Lee, 12th Bishop of Virginia, stood on the front stoop of this building and pounded the base of his pastoral staff on the door, saying, “Let the doors be opened.” The doors, once opened, revealed to the Bishop and to clergy of this parish a throng of believers who had squeezed into the new church. He continued, “Peace be to this house, and to all who enter here: [making the sign of the cross with his crozier] “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
And, here once again, faith abounded – resonant, joyful, exuberant faith in what God had wrought and sustained, and in the perseverance of the saints, on whose shoulders we were standing. In music, ritual, inspired preaching, and hearty congregational singing, we celebrated the grace of God and the responsive labor of love that is New St. Mary’s. The liturgy of dedication and consecration was so spirited that the massive wooden building absorbed the energy, and moved enough to cause the suspended sanctuary cross to pitch from side to side. It was a blessed event – one that remains vivid in the lives of those who participated in the project and the official opening of a new era of mission.
In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about perseverance based on faith. He paints a picture of an unjust judge who ignores the repeated pleas of a widow seeking justice. Eventually, that judge grudgingly acquiesced to her unyielding effort and heard her case. Jesus then contrasts that kind of stonewalling with the grace of God, who hears the cries of his chosen and responds to their needs. Still, Jesus challenges those hearing this story, asking: “… [but] when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
This is an open-ended question; it has no expiration date. Jesus posed it not only to his contemporary followers, but also to all of us who are bold to call ourselves “Christian.” The question cuts to the heart of discipleship. I have heard it put another way: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
In the final analysis, discipleship is more about deeds than it is about words. Words of conviction are important, but our words, our professions of faith, need to find traction in what we do. A popular ecumenical hymn of the 1960s, “We are one in the Spirit,” had a powerful refrain: “and they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The reference to love here is to the Greek, agape. Agape-love refers neither to feeling, nor to attraction, nor to passion; it is an action word, rooted in an act of the will to give of oneself to others without expecting a return or reward. It is the defining characteristic of the gracious God revealed in Christ Jesus. Christian faith is evidenced by our acts of selfless love.
Virginia and Richard Allen believed in the mercies of God, and acted on their faith: they created Little St. Mary’s to serve the souls and bodies of the people of this “destitute” area. The mission church was love-in–action. It was evidence of their Christian discipleship to the One whose love is stronger than death.
People have often said that the very sight of St. Mary’s Church perched on the knoll beside River Road, is inspiring. It has said, “this is church,” to passers-by since 1878. Little St. Mary’s beckons people to come and see. Indeed, many did just that, and we grew!
By 1989, the congregation had completely outgrown the capacity of the little country church. And, after a period of prayerful research and reflection, the Vestry launched a series of construction and renovation campaigns that lasted for more than a decade. Major investments of faith and financial commitment by the families and friends of the parish have enabled us to preserve and enhance what earlier generations of disciples provided. Our forbearers persevered in faith, entrusting the future to us, as we in turn will entrust it to future generations. Together we’ve added New St. Mary’s, whose bell tower sounds on the hour, announcing that the parish is thriving 145 years after its hopeful beginnings.
In projects conceived by necessity, remembrance, aesthetic sensibility, and service-oriented mission, we’ve continued to grow and improve our mission and ministries. We’ve developed our capacity for forming disciples young and old, for ensuring the structural soundness of our buildings, both historic and contemporary, to worship in person and online, to offer spiritual reflection, Bible study, and opportunities for serving this world that God so loves. We’ve offered delicious occasions of fellowship, tended the churchyard’s lovely landscaping, pioneered a nature trail and site for outdoor worship, creatively taught and mentored our children and youth, focused on exciting programs for older members, and (thanks to David and his excellent staff) we have coped creatively with a pandemic.
All of these works of preservation and enhancement have extended the mission of a larger parish that knows from whence we came, and to whom we belong. Every act of love is in the Name of Christ Jesus; every step forward is in thanksgiving for the grace that enables us to persevere in faith.
You and I are living members of this community of St. Mary. We are the mission begun in 1877, improved in 1930 (Old Parish Hall), amended in 1970 (office annex); further extended in 1992 (New St. Mary’s); restored and preserved in 1998 (Little St. Mary’s); and expanded once again in 2002 (with the bell tower, music suite, refurbished kitchen, new classrooms, and educational building). Without sounding a trumpet, we are the mission that imagined and launched St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Goochland Cares, Elk Hill Farm, as well as further missions to South Africa, Ecuador, and Appalachia. We’ve sponsored and supported CARITAS, Richmond Hill, the Bishop’s Chapel at Roslyn, Peter Paul Development Center, St. Andrew’s School, the Anna Julia Cooper School, education of international college and graduate students, and the resettlement of families from Cuba, The Czech Republic, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Our members are involved in a host of charitable, educational and service organizations; engagement in mission is in our spiritual DNA. It is who we are.
On this 30th anniversary of the dedication and consecration of New St. Mary’s, we can, in God’s mercy, celebrate and enjoy the fruits of committed belief and action. We can cherish the history of our parish life with awe and gratitude, we can admire the beauty and the holiness of this place, and we can give thanks for the men, women, and children who have worked long and hard to make this event possible. We can partake of the Holy Eucharist celebrated in this spectacular setting. And we can pray for the blessing of God’s gracious forgiveness and belief in us despite our shortcomings.
But in no way are we to rest on our laurels, satisfied with our achievements, as though they were ours, and ours alone. Today, and always, there remains a pressing question for us: What comes next? Where will the evidence of our faith be further revealed? This is our challenge and our opportunity to grow in mission and in faith. So, let us dream the dream, and then commence the work we are called to do: of offering God’s love to others, for love’s sake. Then it may be said that St. Mary’s Church is a place and a people where faith has been, and will be, found on earth.
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, let it be so. Amen.