Visit no. 1: Basilica of Saint Mary

Visit no. 1: Basilica of Saint Mary

We happily started off our “Jubilee Journey” celebrations at one of the most beautiful churches in the Diocese, the Basilica of Saint Mary in Alexandria. And what a fortunate visit it was, as we unknowingly joined a very special mass with Father Bob Monagle.

Visit date: Saturday, July 1, 2023

Mass: 5:00 pm Saturday Vigil

Address: 310 S. Royal Street in Old Town Alexandria, VA

Website: The Basilica of Saint Mary (

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary: 97:

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

“Whoever receives you receives me,
and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet
will receive a prophet’s reward,
and whoever receives a righteous man
because he is a righteous man
will receive a righteous man’s reward.
And whoever gives only a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones to drink
because the little one is a disciple—
amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”


by Michael

We hadn’t really thought through the logistics of our trips, so as Terry and I played with maps and searches for “Mary church”, we weren’t sure what we’d find and where. We’d look at the map, figure the distance, then street-view it to get a sense for the Church and environs. And, yes, I admit it, I wanted a cool church for our first Mary pilgrimage!

By “cool” church, I meant a “churchy-church” — you know, tall facade, steeple, huge doors… something that’d look great in Florence.

Then, Terry exclaimed, “Look up the Basilica of Saint Mary, it’s in Old Town,” I thought, okay, Old Town, could be a lot of things. Got on my Bing map, hit the street view, and, wow, this is the one!

We decided to stop beforehand by the Pauline bookstore, run by the Daughters of St. Paul, on Duke Street. Happily, our friend, Sister Julia was there. She and Terry have hit it off, and we pray regularly for inspiration for her to write one day a book on Mother Mary that she has been contemplating. Terry was very excited to let her know that we are visiting Our Lady of Guadalupe this August, and Sister Julia was full of great advice. Maybe one day we can all go to Lourdes and Fatima together. I was there to buy a Sunday Missal for a young man I met at the past week’s 11am Mass at the Cathedral, and Terry came away with an armful of books on Guadalupe. We then headed over to 310 S. Royal Street.

Not knowing the parking scene, we got there early and found a spot right across the street. It was a hot day, July 1, and people walking into the Basilica kindly told the old lay who seems to occupy the front steps to stay cool and hydrate. We walked around out front, examining the signs, the statues and the gorgeous building. The lady called out to us, “George Washington was here, you know!”

This stirred my historian’s soul, so I turned and discussed, in a rather one-way but what I thought was interesting conversation about how General Washington’s embrace of Catholics was both brave and crucial to the Revolution’s success. Had Protestants succeeded in isolating Catholic Maryland and Catholics across the colonies, the British would have secured a substantial wedge.

She kindly listened, then said, “Can I have a few bucks to buy some water at the Safeway?”

With only a twenty in my pocket that I planned to donate to the Basilica, I apologized to her that I didn’t have any spare money, but I did have some water in the truck — I ran back and brought her a fresh bottle.

Terry had been consuming the historical marker that explained how prior to 1785 the Catholic community of Alexandria had met, first, in a log building, then in the home of Colonel John Fitzgerald, and Aide de Camp to General Washington (no small thing). Fitzgerald had immigrated from Dublin in 1769 and pursued a successful merchant business. There he befriended Washington and was thus trusted by Washington as a courier and emissary during the War. Following the War, he served as a Director of Washington’s Potomac River Canal corporation, an unsuccessful canal project, remnants of which can be seen at Great Falls National Park, Great Falls, Virginia; see here for the “Patowmack Canal“.

Though never completed, the canal has two legacies: 1) the US Constitution itself, as Washington’s frustrations dealing with the states of Maryland and Virginia led to his call for the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which led to the following year’s Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia; and 2) Washington willed his remaining shares in the Potomac Company to fund a university, and although the shares had lost all value, the bequest kept alive his dream for a national university in Washington, DC, which was chartered by Congress in 1821.

Click to enlarge

Colonel Fitzgerald also served as Mayor of Alexandria, on the City Council, and as Customs Collector for the port of Alexandria during Washington’s presidency. He died in 1799, the same year as Washington, and, like many early new republic entrepreneurs, died broke. It was long thought he was buried at the cemetery of “Saint Mary’s Catholic Church,” but per the Park Service (see Lt Col John Fitzgerald – Valley Forge National Historical Park (, apparently not.

By the time I finished my history lesson with the marker and, what I thought was a friendly deed for the lady with a bottle of water, Terry had entered the church and awaited for me just inside. There was no room for impatience: she stood there, stunned by the wondrous hall before us.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Just perfect. And wow, everything about this day was perfect — we had no idea.

It is in June that certain priests move to new parishes. Perhaps our priests don’t know, but we parishioners are deeply moved by these difficult and beautiful moments of losing a beloved shepherd while gaining another. We are anxious and happy at once.

This Vigil Mass at the Basilica of Saint Mary happened to mark the farewell Mass of Father Bob Monagle who was completing his two-year term as Chief of Personnel, Budge and Readiness at the Air Force and Space Force Chief of Chaplains Office at the Pentagon. We didn’t realize it until the homily, but, once we did, we understood why the pews were so full to celebrate Mass with this wonderful and clearly beloved priest.

During Mass a storm struck, which gave opportunity for a great joke from Father Bob about a flyover, which was a solid repartee to a comment from the Parish Vicar, a Navy man (I’m pretty sure). The storm had cleared by end of Mass, so folks were able to leave comfortably as they headed over to a reception for Father Bob.

We left from there, thrilled and satisfied with our first Mary church visit. Couldn’t have been better.

As we descended to the walk and headed to the car, I noticed a plastic bottle of water sitting by the steps where the old lady had sat. She had wanted money, not the water. But I left it there in case she comes back or, perhaps, for someone else in need.

Then it struck me, from the day’s Gospel:

And whoever gives only a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones to drink
because the little one is a disciple—
amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.”

Mt 10:37-42

Not for me, but for her.

I pray for her and for all those who thirst, want, or crave from the world: may they instead thirst for the Lord.

– Micheal

A note on “basilica”:

“Basilica” means “regal” or “above the rest” in Greek. In the Catholic Church, a “Basilica” is a church so designated by the Pope and thereby distinguished from other churches by both the title and for particular ceremonial purposes.

Here for a nice article on it: What Makes a Basilica – Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul – Chattanooga, TN ( and here for the Vatican rules on Granting the Title of Minor Basilica | USCCB

Here for photos from our visit:


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