Anyone who thought history was only about the past will be surprised to learn that a Falls Church building which is hundreds of years old still has its history and legacy evolving.
Just four years ago, The Falls Church Episcopal, founded in 1732, was the recipient of remnants which a clergyman had removed from the church during the Civil War, 1861-1865.
After years owning the keepsakes, the family which became owners of the remnants decided to return them to The Falls Church Episcopal with a copy of a letter from a Union chaplain, the Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, who described what he had done.
At the church’s regular monthly history tour last Sunday, Joe Ewbank, the church historian/archivist, and Robin Rosbolt, both members of the church’s history ministry, described this recent addition to church history for visitors and members of The Falls Church.
The letter from Rev. Rodrock told how he bribed a US army guard at the church with dinner to allow the clergyman entrance into the church, with the promise that the reverend would respect all the church’s contents.
Ewbank said at the time the U.S. did not have a policy to desecrate Confederate buildings, but most buildings in Falls Church were abandoned then, and soldiers would take pieces of them as souvenirs, much like some people try to do today at historic places.
Upon entering the church building (now called the Historic Church), Rev. Rodrock took scissors and cut off a piece of carpet and a piece of the cushion in the pulpit and sent them to his wife. In his letter, he mentioned another piece, supposedly associated with George Washington, which the church did not receive, and a small branch from a tree Washington allegedly planted at the church.
Anything at the church which is associated with George Washington (1732-1799), the first U.S. president, carries special significance, Ewbank and Rosbolt said, and smiled at each other. Washington was president from 1789-1797.
Washington was a member of The Falls Church vestry, the church’s governing board, from 1762 to 1765, until the Virginia legislature in Williamsburg created a new parish which included The Falls Church but not Mount Vernon, Washington’s home.
Later, Washington gave one pound, the British currency, for “decorations” for a new church building to replace the dilapidated original structure built in 1734.
At that time under English control, taxpayers built churches.
The amount Washington gave was “a fair amount” for the church’s total building cost of 699 pounds, Ewbank noted. The new building completed in 1769 with enslaved labor, still stands and is used today, one of the oldest Episcopal church structures in the U.S.
“By his spiritual presence in the history of this place,” Ewbank said, Washington is important, but the stories surrounding his association with the church exceed reality. Like the tree the reverend says in his letter which Washington planted.
Ewbank credited several individuals for their support and efforts to keep the church going since its founding, including George Somerville, Henry Fairfax, those who worked to end slavery, and the 19 people who refused during this century to allow the church to be taken over by oppositionists in a battle over doctrinal and property rights.
For those who want a literal “hands on” experience with historic pieces at the Falls Church, Ewbank says the church brings out a chalice every Easter and Christmas Eve with a similar background to the remnants’.
At the next monthly history tours at The Falls Church Episcopal on October 1, 2023, Ewbank may outline that chapter in the church’s history book after the 9:00 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. services. The Falls Church, 115 East Fairfax St., Falls Church, 22046, 703–241–0003, thefallschurch.org.