History

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Christ Church

Christ Church was built more than 235 years ago to be a parish church to meet the spiritual needs of its parishioners and the community, a tradition that continues today. Originally built in a quiet, wooded location, Christ Church now has more than 2,400 members and is in the heart of the City of Alexandria. All are welcome.

Christ Church: The Building

Construction of the mid-eighteenth-century, Georgian-style church began in 1767 under the direction of James Parsons. John Carlyle supervised the work from 1772 until its completion in February 1773. The brick exterior is laid in Flemish bond with glazed headers and the quoins are of Aquia sandstone. The roof originally had juniper shingles that were later replaced with slate. Box pews, such as the one that belonged to George Washington, lined aisles of brick tile floors; wooden planks covered the floors of the pews, elevated then as now above the level of the aisles. On several occasions, the interior suffered modifications, but it now appears as it did in the 1890s after a restoration consistent with the original Georgian detailing.

The Palladian chancel window is an unusual feature in a colonial Virginia church. James Wren, who created the architectural drawings and specifications for Christ Church, also hand-lettered the panels that flank the window. A 1602 canon of the Church of England directed that the Ten Commandments be set upon the East-end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see and read the same, and other chosen Sentences. At Christ Church, these also include the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule. The background of the panels was originally white, but over the years it has mellowed into the soft gold seen today. The panels have never been retouched.

No record remains of the exact location and design of the earliest pulpit, but the wineglass pulpit, installed during the 1890s restoration, is consistent with the design, location, and liturgical practices of the period when the church was built.

James Wren’s plans spaced the windows to admit of galleries, which the church added about 1787 when attendance had outgrown available seating on the main level. The lower portion of the bell tower provided the stairway to the galleries; the upper section was added about 1820. The small chandelier under the west gallery, purchased in 1817, initially hung in the center of the church.

Click here to download a collection of images tracing the history of our campus. Note: this is a large file and may take several minutes to download.

Christ Church: The People

George Washington was first elected to the Truro Parish in 1762. The parish, a geographic area, included Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Mt. Vernon.

Washington bought and later rented a box family pew and attended services when in Alexandria. Visitors are welcome to sit in the pew.

Robert E. Lee attended Christ Church throughout his life from the time he was three. A silver plaque on the chancel rail marks the spot, where on July 17, 1853, with two of his daughters, Lee knelt to be confirmed by the assistant bishop of Virginia, John Johns. Lee married George Washington’s step-great-granddaughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis.

Dr. David Griffith, the rector of this parish and the Falls Church from 1779 until his death a decade later, helped organize the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in the United States. A physician and a clergyman, he also had served as chaplain to a regiment of the Continental Army closely associated with Washington.

The churchyard was the burying ground for the town of Alexandria until 1809. Later interments took place at the Christ Church cemetery on Wilkes Street, the resting place of many members of the Lee and Mason families.

Christ Church: The History

The Church of England, the established church of Virginia, was part of and protected by the colonial government, which divided the colony into geographical areas known as parishes for administrative purposes. All residents of a parish were members of it and required to pay taxes to sustain it. An elected vestry of twelve men conducted the business of the parish, which consisted primarily of religious activities and provision of the equivalent of modern social welfare services.

 The City of Alexandria, founded in 1749, had a chapel of ease located here by 1753—
a place of worship for the convenience of parishioners distant from the main church. In 1765, the growth of the population led the Virginia legislature to divide the parish. The new parish created out of the northern end of Truro parish was named Fairfax. Its vestry decided that the main church at Falls Church and the chapel of ease at Alexandria were inadequate and would be replaced. Two new, similar churches, designed by James Wren, were then built from one set of plans.

The American Revolution began shortly after completion of the churches and ultimately required the organization of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, an autonomous province of the worldwide Anglican Communion. This change meant the end of government support and protection. Unlike many Virginia parishes, Christ Church survived and grew through the support of local residents like George Washington and the clerical leadership of David Griffith and Bryan Fairfax. The church was vigorous enough to accommodate a division that resulted in the establishment of St. Paul’s, also in Alexandria, in 1809.

From 1811 to 1813, William Meade served as rector of Christ Church. Later bishop of Virginia and presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the Confederate States, Meade infused new energy into the spiritual life of the community. His handpicked successor, Oliver Norris, continued Meade’s success and arranged for the church’s official consecration as Christ Church by Bishop Thomas Claggett of Maryland on January 9, 1814. Meade and his associates further enriched the church by founding Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria in 1823. Throughout the remainder of the antebellum era, Christ Church drew on these foundations to sustain its ministry.

The Civil War abruptly altered life at Christ Church. When the U.S. Army occupied Alexandria in 1861, it seized many churches for use as hospitals or stables. However, the reputation of Christ Church as George Washington’s place of worship preserved it as a church where U.S. Army chaplains conducted services. Parishioners who remained in the area worshiped elsewhere. In 1866, Christ Church, its interior intact, was restored to its parishioners.

Ironically, the postwar years saw more changes to the interior of Christ Church than did the war years. During this period, the Rev. Randolph H. McKim modernized it to Victorian tastes, but the 1890s restoration restored its Georgian integrity.

The president of the United States traditionally visits Christ Church during his administration, often on a Sunday near Washington’s birthday. Some presidential visits, however, have been in conjunction with other events, most notably the January 1, 1942, visit by President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill for the World Day of Prayer for Peace during World War II. 

Christ Church: Today

Christ Church embodies God’s unbounded love by embracing, liberating, and empowering people whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith.

Outreach and mission programs—both global and local—seek to bring social justice to all God wants us to serve. We are called to live out the gift of Jesus Christ’s unlimited love that brings transformation and new life to ourselves and to our brothers and sisters, especially those who suffer from poverty, violence, and injustice.

Our outreach and mission programs extend from helping the homeless and underprivileged of Alexandria to assisting abandoned girls in Honduras, mothers and children living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda, children in the Holy Land, and the persecuted church in Sudan. We have diverse political, theological, and social views, but our rich heritage and deep roots give us enduring strength for the unified work we do in our local community and in the world.

We are an oasis for all who walk through our churchyard providing a quiet space for meditation, conversation, or simply eating lunch. Our worship services and special events are open to all. We find many visit for our history and then stay for our shared worship, fellowship, and service to others. Join us anytime.

 

 

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