The Falls Church

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Falls Church
The Falls Church is located in Northern Virginia
The Falls Church
The Falls Church is located in Virginia
The Falls Church
The Falls Church is located in USA
The 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)
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 the spring of 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 a clergyman who lived near present-day Quantico, and the nearest church was Pohick Church near Lorton.

Known as "William Gunnell's Church," the new 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 Pohick Church; the cost was 33,500 pounds of tobacco. Like Pohick Church, the new church served Truro Parish, which had been established by the colonial Virginia Assembly in May 1732 for the land north of the Occoquan River; 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]

By 1762, the wood building had fallen into decay and the vestry (the church governing body) ordered a new brick building to be constructed on the same site. The next year, George Washington and George William Fairfax, as church wardens, assumed responsibility to contract for the new building. After 1765, this church became the seat of the new Fairfax Parish.[4][5]

The new church was designed by Colonel James Wren, a member of the vestry. Work commenced in 1767 and completed in late fall 1769.[3] The Wren building remains on the site, between S. Washington, E. Broad, and E. Fairfax Streets. The 1769 structure is the oldest remaining church building north of Quantico in Virginia and is one of the oldest church structures in the United States.

Revolutionary War and aftermath[edit]

The Fairfax militia recruited from the church during the Revolutionary War, and it is said that at the war's end, the Declaration of Independence was read to citizens from the steps of the south doors. In 1784, the Commonwealth of Virginia revoked the status of the Anglican Church as state church. In 1789, The Falls Church was abandoned[3] and remained unoccupied for almost 50 years when, in 1836, it was reoccupied by an Episcopal congregation.[6] Francis Scott Key was a lay reader of this congregation, as was Henry Fairfax, who used his own funds to restore the building during 1838 and 1839.

Civil War disruption and damage[edit]

During the Civil War the church was used by Union troops as a hospital and later as a stable. Worship resumed thereafter, and which has been continuous since about 1873. The interior was repaired after the war, with the Federal government paying for damage caused by Union forces. Some of these repairs can be discerned in brickwork below the windows and in the lower part of the brick doorway at the west end of the church.

The church was remodeled in 1908 and extensively renovated in 1959. Galleries, in Wren's original design but never constructed, were installed and a new chancel was added. Other than repairs of war damage and the chancel addition, the structure reflects the original 1769 construction.

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.[7]

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,[8][9][10] 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 became known as The Falls Church (Anglican) continued to worship at The Falls Church property. 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.[11] 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.[12][13] 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.[14] On March 10, 2014, The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the Falls Church Anglican, ending the matter.[15]


  1. ^ Staff (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 
  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. ^ "The Falls Church". The Falls Church. 
  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. ^ Schjonberg, Mary Frances. Falls Church Anglicans appeal to state Supreme Court. Episcopal News Service, June 6, 2012
  8. ^ Turque, Bill; Michelle Boorstein (18 December 2006). "7 Va. Episcopal Parishes Vote to Sever Ties". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  9. ^ "The Falls Church and Truro Church Vote Overwhelmingly to Sever Ties with Episcopal Church". Global South Anglican. 17 December 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  10. ^ "Petition for Approval of Report of Congregational Determination Pursuant to Va. Code 57-9" (PDF). Arlington County Circuit Court. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  11. ^ 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" (PDF). Circuit Court of Fairfax County. Retrieved 10 June 2013. 
  12. ^ Episcopal Church wins Virginia Supreme Court ruling The Washington Post
  13. ^ Benton, N. Anglicans Hand Keys of Historic Falls Church to Episcopalians May 23, 2012.
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ Michelle Boorstein (10 March 2014). "Supreme Court won't hear appeal of dispute over Episcopal Church's property in Va.". Washington Post. 

External links[edit]

The Falls Church (Episcopal)

The Falls Church (Anglican)