During World War II, the housing shortage in the Washington Metropolitan area was legendary, the subject of magazine articles, radio comedians’ jokes, and even movies. To provide some housing for the multitudes of federal workers and military personnel, particularly those in the newly built Pentagon, the federal government subsidized the building of North and South Fairlington and Park Fairfax astride Virginia Highway 350 (Shirley Highway) in Arlington and Alexandria, less than four miles south of the Pentagon. The more than 2,500 families in these developments included hundreds of Catholic families.
Recognizing the needs of these families, in 1943, Bishop Peter L. Ireton of Richmond directed Fr. Edward L Stephens, newly appointed pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria, to buy sufficient land for the ultimate construction of a complete parish plant for the people of Fairlington and Park Fairfax. In four separate purchases in 1943 and 1944, Fr. Stephens bought 24 lots (about 3 acres) in the West Braddock Heights Subdivision on West Braddock Road in Alexandria. The total cost was $34,200.
On April 16, 1944, the Sunday after Easter, Fr. Stephens celebrated Mass in Fairlington Elementary School. On that Sunday, a group led by Virgil C. Funk, Sr., collected the names of and distributed envelope boxes to 163 persons, noting that there were many more to be added in the coming weeks. Within a year, Fr. Stephens and his assistants were celebrating four Masses at “Blessed Sacrament Mission” each Sunday.
Building materials were impossible to obtain during the war. With the war’s end in August 1945, an architect and a construction firm were retained to build a church. The intent was to erect a building that would serve as a church for some years and could later be converted to a parish hall or gymnasium. The eventual church was to be built on the block to the north of the temporary church. Excavation started in September 1945, but shortages of materials delayed completion until September 1946. The cost was $90,000.
On December 20,1945, during the course of construction, Bishop Ireton appointed Fr. Martin T. Quinn, then pastor of St. John’s Church in Front Royal, as the first pastor of Blessed Sacrament, thereby establishing an independent parish. Born in Roscommon County in Ireland and trained for the priesthood there, Fr. Quinn had come to the United States shortly after his ordination in 1926. He was one of the many Irish priests to come to the Richmond Diocese, which had no seminary to train its own priests. Through the years, Fr. Quinn was influential in bringing many other young Irish priests to the Richmond Diocese.
Fr. Quinn was installed by Fr. Stephens on January 20, 1946, which is regarded as the official parish birthday. The first Assistant Pastor was the recently ordained Rev. Vincent L. Campi. The priests lived in two bungalows next to the church. In December 1947, the parish would buy a frame house, the “white house,” facing Cypress (now Kenwood) and convert it to a rectory. Two masses were celebrated on weekdays in the rectory.
After two years, the Fairlington School auditorium could no longer accommodate the increasing congregation. On Easter Sunday, 1946, the owners of the Centre Theatre, immediately to the north of the construction site on Quaker Lane, granted the parish use of the theater for Sunday and Holy Day Masses, free of charge. Because parishioners quickly became used to its comfortable seating and summer air conditioning, the priests looked forward to moving to the new church with some trepidation.
On September 15, 1946, Bishop Ireton dedicated the new church, which faced West Braddock Road at the corner of Braddock and what is now Radford. Fr. Stephens delivered the homily. At the time of the dedication, 700 families were registered. Virgil Funk would later write about the event: “Bishop Ireton blessed the cornerstone and dedicated the church so that Blessed Sacrament, already a people, became a place as well.”
With the end of World War II and the return of veterans, Blessed Sacrament’s population steadily grew, attendance was to so grow that the community celebrated eight masses each Sunday, using the main church and the basement simultaneously. The liturgy was like that everywhere in the Roman Rite-mass in Latin, priest’s back to the people, altar boys reciting responses in Latin, the congregation following the mass in personal missals or reciting their own private prayers, and communicants kneeling at a communion rail separating the altar from the body of the church.
By 1983, the parish was forced to choose between a substantial renovation of the church or constructing a new one. An architectural firm was commissioned to study the feasibility of a new church. Parish property along West Braddock Road was chosen as the best location and proceeds from the sale of the old church property provided part of the funds required for the new church. Parishioners pledged over $750,000 during fundraising to cover additional building costs.
On Sunday, June 8, 1986, Blessed Sacrament celebrated two significant events in its history. Founding Pastor Martin T. Quinn celebrated his 60th anniversary as a priest and ground was broken for the new church. On August 18, 1986, Bishop Keating approved a revised building plan which included a school and a gym. In April 1987, the parish lost its beloved pastor, Monsignor Quinn. On September 10, 1988, Blessed Sacrament parish moved into its new church and school.
The overall design of the church and school buildings are modeled after medieval cloisters and Mediterranean villages built around an open plaza, with covered walkways which brings the people into frequent contact with one another as they wander the facilities. Persons entering the worship space are immediately confronted by the baptismal font, in which new members are brought into the community. The continually running waters of the font and the flowing waters of the stained glass window above the font add to the serenity of the worship space.