An innocent search for a bible that local icon Jessie Thackrey loaned to The Falls Church Episcopal long ago led her daughter, Sue, to scour the historic property for the sacred text. Along the way, she discovered a wooden rafter from the original 1769 brick church and that discovery planted a seed of wonderment. No one knew in that moment, but uncovering a rafter brought about the formation of the tight-knit Archive Ministry now dedicated to telling the story of the Little City and its landmark church.
“[The rafter] was just sitting in a box, so I thought ‘You know, there’s a lot of stuff sitting around,’” Thackrey reflected. “‘Wouldn’t it be great to comb through the whole church and organize everything and find out what we have here because there’s so much history?’”
A post-church brunch some time later saw a second person, Aliceann Muller, join in Thackrey’s efforts with church historian Joe Ewbank finding his way into the mix as well. From there, the small group of historical savants felt equipped to resume its quest. They surveyed every inch of the church grounds, foraging through the attic, basement, storm cellar and even Southgate shopping center across Fairfax St. to uncover any more hidden treasures. A bounty of artifacts were secured including old photos, documents and architectural models of the church leading up to its 1959 renovation.
Each new item presented a window into the integral role the parish had in defining today’s city. The Falls Church, named due to its location near the Potomac River’s Little Falls, was one of the earliest churches built in Northern Virginia and signified the start of the Truro Parish. It withstood a denomination switch from Anglican to Methodist in the American Revolution and was at times a stable, infirmary and unwilling brick donor during the Civil War. Its re-establishment in 1873 and massive growth after World War I fostered a longstanding, though somewhat embattled, parish for well over a century.
To represent that heritage, the committee first needed to round up their artifacts and clear out a spare room. Then came indexing each item into proper storage units, which got a boost due to a Mustard Seed grant from the Diocese of Virginia. The tedious but tantamount work received a leg-up when the group nearly doubled in size with the arrival of Robin Rosbolt and her son Kevin soon after.
“We spent weeks and weeks just dragging out boxes and cataloging what was in it on 3×5 cards just so we would have an idea of what was there,” Robin said. “We wanted to sort things, but you can’t sort things if you don’t know what you have.”
As the breadth and depth of the items became more clear, the ministry developed an ideal end goal to their intellectual gold rush: a visitor’s center that’d double as a mini-exhibit to be located in the rear chapel. On top of that, the visitor’s center would serve as a hub for regular walking tours.
It seems fitting since the church is listed as one of the top three “Things to Do” in Falls Church on TripAdvisor. Of course, some more elbow grease is needed to clear out the rear chapel. Recent additions to the ministry Lee Carrigan, along with the younger Rosbolt, brings a knowledge of docent programs, and Becky DeNitto and Vicki Anonat-Schmidt, who contribute their experience in archival work and library science, provide a collection of minds who can enrich the quality of final product (and yes, more hands to clear out the chapel).
While the group has been nose-deep in primary sources for the past five years, they haven’t publicized their efforts to garner support from residents. Right now, they’re banking on a feature piece from a local publication (who could that be?) to get the word out and – hopefully – show the City how much they’re missing by not delving into its history. Piqueing the people’s interest is necessary to attract the needed funding for their educational vision.
“It’s very interesting how many people here are not aware of this cultural artifact,” Ewbank said. “The committee would like to re-establish our presence as something for both people who live or visit here [that they] can access and be informed about.”
When assessing the whole of their undertaking, the group is really the most recent iteration of a generations-long project. Falls Church residents throughout history stowed items within the body of the church because they were aware that its influence was in lock-step with the City’s growth. Now the combination of eight diverse, but singularly focused minds has a chance to realize the intentions of past inhabitants. With some more time (and money) that dream will become a reality.