The Falls Church

The Falls Church historically refers to the church from which the City of Falls Church, Virginia, near Washington, D. C., takes its name. The parish it originally served was established in 1732 and the brick meeting house preserved on site dates to 1769.

Prior to 2007, there was one congregation known as The Falls Church. In December 2006, the congregation by a vote of 1221 to 127 voted to disaffiliate with 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, or 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. Members remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) are now known as The Falls Church (Episcopal); they currently worship at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, across the street from the historic Falls Church site. Legal disputes over the historic church property are ongoing.

Colonial Beginnings

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. 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.

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).

George Mason was elected Vestryman in 1748, as was George Washington in 1762.

The New Brick Church

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, the seat of Truro Parish, which had been here, returned to the southern part of the county and this church became the seat of the new Fairfax Parish.

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. 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

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 and was not re-occupied again until 1836, by an Episcopal congregation.

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

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 worshipped 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

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 wonderful 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 Southgate property and signed a purchase option on the adjacent parking lot. This property was purchased to handle, in the short term, the educational needs of the congregation. In the long term, it is our prayer that we will be able to convert the space into a building that will support the mission of TFC.

Legal issues

In mid to late December 2006, the separatist portion of the congregation petitioned the local circuit court to transfer the property from its trustees to CANA's ownership of the Falls Church property pursuant to Va. Code § 57-9. The Diocese of Virginia and the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America intervened as parties defendant and answered the petitions, and filed counter-actions for declaratory judgment that the property was held in trust for the Diocese and the national Episcopal Church.

After numerous motions and evidentiary hearings, on December 19, 2008, the court ruled in favor of CANA with respect to all property with the exception of an endowment fund, the disposition of which will be determined at a later stage. The Diocese of Virginia and the Protestant Episcopal Church filed petitions for appeal with 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 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 statutory 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.

Building Activity

  • removed a media
    about 6 years ago via