The Falls Church

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Falls Church
Location 115 E. Fairfax St., Falls Church, Virginia
Coordinates 38°52′51″N 77°10′16″W / 38.88083°N 77.17111°W / 38.88083; -77.17111Coordinates: 38°52′51″N 77°10′16″W / 38.88083°N 77.17111°W / 38.88083; -77.17111
Area 0 acres (0 ha)
Built 1767 (1767)
Governing body Private
NRHP Reference # 70000870[1]
VLR # 110-0001
Significant dates
Added to NRHP February 26, 1970
Designated VLR December 2, 1969[2]

The Falls Church is a historic Episcopal church from which the city of Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, D. C., takes its name. The parish was established in 1732 and the brick meeting house preserved on site dates to 1769.


Colonial beginnings[edit]

The forerunner to The Falls Church appears to have been founded by landowner William Gunnell, who had moved from Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1729. In Spring 1730, he secured a minister and convened a congregation, which met in his home until 1733, when the first building was constructed.[3] Until that time, this area was served by clergyman who lived near present-day Quantico, and the nearest church was Occoquan Church near Lorton.

Known as "William Gunnell's Church," this wooden structure was designed and built by Colonel Richard Blackburn, who was directed to construct a weatherboarded building forty feet by twenty-two feet, with a thirteen-foot pitch roof, and with interior work modeled on that of the Pohick/Occoquan Church; cost was 33,500 pounds of tobacco. It served Truro Parish, which was established by the colonial Virginia Assembly in May 1732, divided from a larger Anglican parish centered at Occoquan; Truro's first vestry met in November 1732. Michael Reagan allowed the church to be built on his land, but failed to grant the deed. John Trammell later bought the land and, in 1746, sold the two acre lot, including the church, the church-yard, and a spring, to the Vestry of Truro Parish. By this point, it was known as the Upper Church.[3]

The Vestry Book first referred to it as the "Falls Church" on 28 November 1757, owing to its location at the intersection of the road to the Little Falls of the Potomac River (upstream of the Chain Bridge) and the Middle Turnpike (leading from Alexandria to Leesburg, now Virginia Route 7 or Leesburg Pike, called West Broad Street in downtown Falls Church City).[3]

George Mason was elected vestryman in 1748, as was George Washington in 1762.[3]

The new brick church[edit]

In 1762, the wood building was judged to be "greatly in decay". The vestry (the church governing body), meeting at The Falls Church, ordered a new brick building constructed on the same site. In 1763, George Washington and George William Fairfax were appointed church wardens with responsibility to contract for a new building. This was Washington’s last official act on behalf of this church after the parish was divided in 1765 and before work began. After 1765, this church became the seat of the new Fairfax Parish.[4][5]

Work on the new church was begun in 1767 by Colonel James Wren who had designed the building and was a member of the vestry as well. The new building was completed late in the fall of 1769, at which point it became the seat of the newly formed Fairfax Parish.[3] The Wren building remains on the site, between S. Washington, E. Broad, and E. Fairfax Streets. It is the oldest remaining church building north of Quantico in Virginia.

Revolution, disestablishment, abandonment, & re-establishment[edit]

During the Revolutionary War the building was a recruiting station for the Fairfax militia. Tradition holds that the Declaration of Independence was read to local citizens from the steps of the south doors.

Following the Revolution, in 1784, the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted disestablishment of the Anglican Church, revoking its status as state church. Shortly thereafter, in 1789, The Falls Church was abandoned[3] and was not re-occupied again until 1836, by an Episcopal congregation.[6]

Those whose leadership helped to once again open the doors of the church for worship included Francis Scott Key, who was a lay reader, and Henry Fairfax, who used his own funds to restore the building. Several of the early students and faculty members of the Virginia Theological Seminary traveled to The Falls Church to hold services.

Civil War disruption & damage[edit]

Services were again disrupted during the Civil War when the church was used by Union troops as a hospital and later as a stable. An active congregation has worshiped here continuously since about 1873.

The interior was repaired by Fairfax in 1838-39, again after the Civil War, and remodeled in 1908. The most extensive renovations were completed in 1959. At that time, the galleries, which had been provided in Wren’s design but were omitted from the original construction, were finally installed and a new chancel was added.

The structure of the church, except for repairs of war damage and the chancel addition, is the original 1769 construction. Some of the repairs made after the Civil War are evident in brickwork below the windows and in the lower part of the brick doorway at the west end of the church. The Federal Government repaired and paid for the damage caused by Union forces.

Description of the historic church and grounds[edit]

West Entrance (Narthex): This has been the main entrance since 1865. In colonial times the principal entrance was by the south doors; it remained so until the interior was changed with the 1865 repairs.

The Aisles: Aisles in the colonial church were located as now, but were then paved with tiles and were somewhat wider. A single row of box pews, each with a door and with the floors raised slightly above the aisles were located to the side of each aisle; two rows of box pews were in the center of the nave between the aisles. That arrangement remained substantially unchanged until 1861. Between 1861 and 1865 the interior of the church was virtually gutted. The present interior, from 1959, is the fourth version.

Memorial Markers: Several pews have silver markers. Those on the fifth row are in memory of George Washington and Robert E Lee. They were given by local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1926.

Baptismal Font: This stone font is from the colonial period. It was taken to the Star Tavern by a soldier and consigned for shipment to his home around 1863. It was recognized and hidden by local townspeople, and returned to the church in 1876.

Chancel: The present chancel was built in 1959 by removing part of the original east wall. Until then, the holy table and communion rail were along that wall. Until 1861-65, colonial tablets with the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Creed were also above the altar on the east wall. These, too, were destroyed during the Civil War. The eight tiles below the Present table are from the original 1769 aisles.

Pulpit Location: The wide space between the two center windows in the north wall marks the location of the colonial pulpit, which was high, reached by several steps and had a sounding board above. In 1838, the pulpit was moved nearer the east wall in the chancel area. Its present site dates from 1959.

Gallery Level: The pipe organ, installed in 1967, is the first in this church. Built by the Schantz Organ Co., the 750-pipe instrument is divided into two sections. The great organ is exposed on the gallery rail and the swell organ is enclosed in a case on the west wall. The Irene Mori Memorial Harpsichord (Zuckermann, 1973) was built by members of this Parish.

Churchyard: The oldest marked graves (1805) are below the large white oak in the south yard, but earlier burials occurred here. Records show payments in 1778 to the sexton for mending graves. Rounded indentations in the 1805 stone likely resulted from bullets fired by soldiers quartered here in 1861-65. A Revolutionary War veteran’s grave is near the wall, west of the 1805 stone. A monument commemorating Henry Fairfax's restoration of the church, in the 1830s, is near the west end of the south walk. The inscription is copied from the text of a lost plaque reported by a Civil War correspondent in Harper’s Weekly of August 31, 1861. At the west end of the front walk is a marker for an unknown Confederate soldier. Near the north fence is the grave of Mr. Read, minister of the Baptist Church who was shot by Col. Mosby (the "Gray Ghost" of the Civil War) as a spy in 1862. Near the north walk, four dornicks (rough, low stones) predate any standing gravestones.

The oldest tree on the grounds is a huge white oak (south yard) - it is the largest specimen of Quercus alba now recorded in Virginia. Other large trees include a tulip poplar, hickory, silver maple and American holly. Major trees are marked with common and botanical names.

Memorial Garden: A garden has been developed in the east end of the north yard - only native trees, ferns and wildflowers are used. Between that garden and the educational wing is the site of the colonial Vestry House, a one room frame building which served as the "seat" of the parish.

Memorial Garden Chapel: A small chapel was added and consecrated in 2004 in the Memorial Garden. With its peaceful ambience and period furnishings, It has become a place for worship, celebrating small, intimate services, and a quiet place to be near loved ones at rest in the Memorial Garden.

Main Sanctuary: A new sanctuary which seats 800, was added in 1992 to the east end of the education and administration building.

Southgate: In 2000, the church bought the nearby Southgate Shopping Center as the site of a future "parish life center".[7]

Legal issues[edit]

In recent years the congregation became divided on religious issues and the buildings and property of the congregation became the subject of protracted litigation.[8]

In December 2006, the congregation by a vote of 1221 to 127 voted to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) (a member of the Anglican Communion), and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), originally a missionary initiative of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, and now a member jurisdiction of the Anglican Church in North America, which is not part of the Anglican Communion,[9][10][11] but is affiliated with the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, a network of conservative Anglican churches which formed in 2008 in response to an ongoing theological crisis in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The disaffiliating portion of the congregation, now known as The Falls Church (Anglican), continued to worship at The Falls Church property while members remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA), now known as The Falls Church (Episcopal), worshiped across the street at Falls Church Presbyterian Church. Litigation ensued, and in 2012 a court in Fairfax, Virginia, held that the Diocese and ECUSA have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in The Falls Church and other properties and ordered return of the properties to the Diocese. The Episcopal parish thus returned to worshiping at the historic property, and the Anglican parish moved to a different location.

In mid to late December 2006, the portion of the congregation that had voted to disaffiliate from The Episcopal Church petitioned the local circuit court to transfer ownership of the property to CANA. The Diocese of Virginia and the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (ECUSA) intervened in the case and resisted the transfer. In December 2008, the court ruled in favor of CANA with respect to all property with the exception of an endowment fund. The Diocese of Virginia and the Protestant Episcopal Church appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which a number of other hierarchical churches joined as amici curiae, including the Episcopal dioceses of Southern Virginia and Southwestern Virginia, along with representatives of consultative bodies from the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the National Capital Presbytery, Presbytery of Eastern Virginia, and the Metro DC Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, finding that the Falls Church and the other breakaway parishes did not meet the criteria of the statute under which the trial court awarded them control of the real property. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

Thereafter, in January 2012, the trial court ruled in favor of the Diocese and ECUSA.[12] The Falls Church and the other CANA parishes appealed the court's ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision leaving the church property in the hands of The Episcopal Church.[13][14] By Easter, April 8, 2012, The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia was in the process of retaking ownership of the parish property of The Falls Church, and the continuing Episcopal congregation of The Falls Church began worshiping again on the parish campus after worshiping in the hall of a Presbyterian church across the street for over five years.[15] On March 10, 2014, The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the Falls Church Anglican, ending the matter.[16]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  2. ^ "Virginia Landmarks Register". Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Retrieved 19 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Steadman, Melvin Lee (1964). Falls Church by Fench and Fireside. Falls Church Public Library. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Pohick Church, Minutes of the Vestry, Truro Parish, Virginia, 1732-1785 (Gateway Press, Baltimore, 1974), p. 58; transcription of Truro Vestry Minutes for February 19, 1749, ordering the rebuilding of the vestry house, the seat of the parish vestry, at Pohick Church in southern Fairfax County.
  6. ^ Gundersen, Joan R. (22 December 2006). "How "Historic" Are Truro Church and The Falls Church?". Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  7. ^ Jenkins, Chris L. Church Plans Raise Concerns; Episcopal Complex Would Replace Shopping Center. The Washington Post. (Aug. 10, 2000) Regional News: pV01.
  8. ^ Schjonberg, Mary Frances. Falls Church Anglicans appeal to state Supreme Court. Episcopal News Service, June 6, 2012
  9. ^ Turque, Bill; Michelle Boorstein (18 December 2006). "7 Va. Episcopal Parishes Vote to Sever Ties". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  10. ^ "The Falls Church and Truro Church Vote Overwhelmingly to Sever Ties with Episcopal Church". Global South Anglican. 17 December 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  11. ^ "Petition for Approval of Report of Congregational Determination Pursuant to Va. Code 57-9". Arlington County Circuit Court. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  12. ^ Bellows, Judge Randy I. (10 January 2012). "Letter opinion of the court regarding the complaints filed by the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia and the Amended Counterclaims Filed by the CANA Congregations". Circuit Court of Fairfax County. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  13. ^ Episcopal Church wins Virginia Supreme Court ruling The Washington Post
  14. ^ Benton, N. Anglicans Hand Keys of Historic Falls Church to Episcopalians May 23, 2012.
  15. ^ Benton, Nicholas F. (8 April 2012). "Episcopalians Return to Historic Falls Church To Pack Chapel for Easter Service". Falls Church News-Press. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  16. ^

External links[edit]

The Falls Church (Episcopal)
The Falls Church (Anglican)