Stories of the Diocese
Church Schools Celebrate 100 Years +
April 16, 2021
The year was 1920 and the country was reeling from the aftershock of World War I. Americans felt an urgent need to restore humanity and renew their commitment to social causes. For the Diocese of Virginia, much of that energy was channeled into building religious schools that would provide a good education in a Christian environment where young people could grow into servant leaders for their communities.
“Back then, there weren’t a lot of schools of any kind,” says David Charlton, President of the Church Schools. Urban schools were overcrowded and rural areas had only a few schools spanning vast distances.
The Church Schools in the Diocese of Virginia was incorporated on June 8, 1920 with three goals in mind: to purchase existing schools that needed financial support, to build new schools to serve more students, and to provide scholarships for the growing number of orphaned children.
In its founding year, Church Schools purchased three underfunded schools – St. Anne’s School in Charlottesville and the renamed St. Catherine’s School and St. Christopher’s School in Richmond. In the same year, the group turned its attention to the underserved Tidewater region, where they established St. Margaret’s School for girls in Tappahannock and Christchurch School for boys in Middlesex County near the Town of Urbanna. Both schools began operations in September of 1921.
St. Margaret’s opened in 1921 in a room above a Tappahannock pharmacy. There were 3 boys and 13 girls in grades K-11.
The following year, the students moved to the “Wright property,” a house purchased by the Church Schools. The tuition for the 1922 session was $500. By 1931, St. Margaret’s was home to 70 boarders and 20 days students. Since 1940, the school has purchased adjacent properties and built new buildings to foster steady growth. Today, St. Margaret’s is home to 110 students in who hail from across the US and 8 other countries. The school serves girls in grades 8-12, with about 70% boarding and 30% day students.
St. Margaret’s 12th Head of School, Cathy Sgroi, began at the school as a math teacher and has worked at St. Margaret’s for 45 years. “The one thing that has not changed
about St. Margaret's School is its mission,” says Sgroi. “St. Margaret's School provides a learning environment where girls know they belong, are challenged and supported to believe in themselves, and prepared to become their best. We inspire girls to reach their full potential and make a better world. I believe our mission is more relevant than ever because young women face more challenges than ever.”
Thirty miles down the road from St. Margaret’s, Christchurch School opened in a hastily converted farmhouse on the 108-acre Eastman Farm near Urbanna. Ten students, all boys, came primarily from cities and towns
across Virginia. Within the first six months, the farmhouse was enlarged, remodeled and fitted with modern improvements. Today, Christchurch serves families from 15 different states and 14 different countries.
"The enduring spirit of Christchurch is that when you arrive you are welcomed, you belong, and you are loved,” says the current Head of School Jeb Byers who has served the school for over thirty years. “There are no rites of passage. We are one. From day one. We meet you where you are and we go as far as we can imagine. Together. Relationships make meaning: this is our core belief."
By 1944, population growth in Northern Virginia had brought so many students to Alexandria’s St. Agnes’ School, founded in 1924, that the facilities were bursting at the seams. In desperate need of space – and a supporter who could fund it – the headmistress and chairwoman of St. Agnes’ asked to join the Church Schools.
At the same time that the Church Schools brought St. Agnes into the fold, the leaders were also working on plans to establish a boys’ school in Alexandria. This would allow St. Agnes’ to transfer its older male students to the new school and further alleviate the crowded quarters. St. Stephen’s opened in 1944 with roughly 100 boys in grades 3-8.
St. Stephen’s became the first of the Church Schools to desegregate its student body, admitting its first African American student in 1961. Over the next decade, the each of the other schools in the Church Schools system admitted their first African Americans students, while most Virginia public schools continued to fight racial integration in the courts. The total Church Schools enrollment in academic year 2019-20 was 3,690 students of which almost 24% were persons of color, with a range of 14% to 43%, depending on the individual school.
As schools were being bought or built by the Church Schools, one school departed the group. In 1970, St. Anne’s merged with the Belfield School, a Charlottesville coeducational elementary and middle feeder school, and negotiated to become an
“associate” member of Church Schools with its own separate corporation status. In 1987, St. Anne’s-Belfield School became completely independent of Church Schools.
Changes were on the horizon in Alexandria schools as well. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes had long coordinated their educational programs, providing opportunities for coeducation. In the mid 1980’s, St. Stephen’s proposed that it become a coeducational institution. After years of negotiation and litigation, the two nearby schools merged in 1991, becoming one coed school named St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School. During the same years, St. Catherine’s and St. Christopher’s seriously considered a similar merger, but decided in 1991 to retain their own separate identities while expanding their cooperative educational programs.
Stuart Hall, Staunton, is the newest addition of the Church Schools system. Originally founded in 1844 as the Virginia Female Institute, Stuart Hall had a long history as an Episcopal school tied to all three Virginia dioceses. Desiring the benefits of belonging to the system of Church Schools, it was admitted to that system in 2003. Stuart Hall had expanded into coeducation in the 1990s, and in 2007 expanded into elementary education through a merger with Hunter McGuire Elementary School, Verona.
Today, the Church Schools owns six schools that are an integral part of the diocesan family. Between the Church Schools, 179 churches, six diocesan retirement communities, and the retreat centers of Shrine Mont and Roslyn, the Diocese cares for God’s children in every season of life. The formation of faithful servants of Christ is a diocesan ministry that spans the generations.
Dr. Charlton says that while just about every aspect of education has changed since the founding of the Church Schools 100 years ago, one thing will always remain unchanged. “The founders believed that religious education was important to make the Commonwealth and the world a better place by building good human beings.” Looking to the future, he says, “We’ll adapt however we need to keep doing that.”
Recalling her own experience working in the Church Schools, Bishop Susan Goff says, “I join in celebrating 100 years of commitment to education through our Church Schools. Having served as chaplain of St. Margaret’s and later of St. Catherine’s, I have experienced first hand the good work of our schools and the challenges they face as they begin their second hundred years. God bless the six schools that are part of Church Schools in the Diocese of Virginia with a commitment to justice, integrity and faith.”
A Peaceful Night, A Perfect End
March 12, 2021
Every Wednesday evening, parishioners at St. Andrew’s, Arlington gather online for Compline, the short, simple service that helps us reflect and center ourselves before bedtime. Rector Dorota Wright-Pruski initiated the online Compline service at the beginning of the pandemic as a way for people to connect mid-week for prayer and fellowship.
A small number of parishioners decided to “try out” this quiet evening service, which was new to all of them. However, it quickly became a much-anticipated midweek event.
For the first several months, the service was planned and led by staff. But in September, Rev. Dorota proposed an idea: what if the compline service was led by lay people, not clergy? Parishioner Lloyd Starns admits, “We were a little hesitant but agreed to take a ‘leap of faith’ and try it. With Rev. Dorota’s encouragement and support from our seminarian Annie Jung, we embarked on this journey and quickly discovered how meaningful the service could still be for us.”
Now, nearly one year since the beginning of the pandemic, St. Andrew’s parishioners continue to meet every Wednesday night at 8:30 for Compline. It is typically a small, intimate gathering of about 7 or 8 worshippers, although more folks have joined during Lent.
“We are grateful that this ancient service has become a part of our worship fabric at St. Andrew’s and,” Starns adds, “we celebrate the willingness of lay members to step out of their comfort zones and try a different format for communal worship.”
Five Ways to Bring Lent Home
Feb. 11, 2021
As we await the time when we can gather in person, Lent 2021 will be an opportunity to create new traditions and to be more intentional as we take on a observances at home. How do we mark the beginning of the Lenten season in tangible ways that bring deeper meaning to it? From the imposition of ashes to creative activities to engage kids, here are 5 ways to bring Lent home.
Many of us will miss the tradition of a Shrove Tuesday Dinner at church, but you can begin a new tradition at home with a guided conversation over your own pancake supper or other meal. Invite everyone at the table to take turns answering questions: Are you planning to give up something for Lent? And: How does Lent help you focus on God? Then read a scripture or prayer and invite reflections from each person. This sheet from Milestone Moments can help you shape your dinner conversation.
Ash Wednesday Bonfire
What better way to engage little ones in the meaning of Ash Wednesday than by roasting s’mores over a bonfire? Leave it to Jerusalem Greer, Evangelism Officer for the Presiding Bishop, to create a beautiful metaphor with a burnt marshmallow. All kidding aside, Greer’s bonfire gathering offers children of all ages a unique way to encounter God’s forgiveness, as prayers are said, stories are shared and as each person cast their regrets into the fire.
Ashes at Home
Many folks plan to attend their church’s online Ash Wednesday service. This means that you or someone in your household will do the part of imposing the ashes. “Can I do that?!” you ask. The short answer is yes, any baptized member of the church can impose ashes on others. You can even ash yourself. While the imposition of ashes is sacred, it’s not a sacrament, and that’s why you don’t have to be ordained to do it.
Where do I get the ashes? Lots of churches in the Diocese will be providing kits of Ashes to go, but you can also make ashes at home. You can use ashes from your fire pit or burn some leaves. If you have palms from previous years, these are especially appropriate. After burning, place the ashes in a small bowl or dish and bring to your online or home service.
What’s my line again? When you get to the point in the service where you will impose the ashes, you simply dip your thumb in the bowl of ashes, then trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead, while saying the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” After all members of the household have received ashes, including yourself, the service continues.
Conducting Your Own Intergenerational Service
If you won’t be attending a church service online, you can use this liturgy from the Rev. Shivaun Wilkinson. It's especially appropriate for households with younger and older kids. It includes “burying the Alleluia,” (literally digging a whole in the yard and burying written notes), “blowing away the sins” (with bubbles, of course), and the imposition of ashes.
Now that you’ve intentionally marked the beginning of the season, don’t lose the Lenten momentum. You can create a daily prayer calendar. In each space on the calendar, write a word or the name of a person to pray for. Then draw, doodle or color around it, all the while praying for that person or meditating on that word. Think of it as a visual prayer. Need a little inspiration? Praying in Color offers some eye-catching printable calendar templates that can help you get started.
The diocesan Office of Christian Formation offers a well-curated library of Lenten resources, including books, meditations, daily devotions and more. Looking for something specific? Contact diocesan Minister for Christian Formation Paris Ball.
Feb. 11, 2021
VTS Immanuel Chapel Opens Doors to Vaccine Clinic for Underserved Community
Desks by Dads at St. Peter's, Arlington
January 27, 2021
Virtual learning amid the pandemic has put some students at a disadvantage, as not every family can afford the supplies to do school from home. When two dads from St. Peter’s, Arlington, saw a news story about Desks by Dads, they said, “Think we can make 100 desks?” “Let’s get started.”
In 10 days, beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving, dozens of St. Peter’s members decided on a design, acquired the lumber (with help from a local company) and built over 100 desks, all while remaining socially distanced, outside of St. Peter’s (thank goodness for good weather). In the meantime, another group of volunteers from St. Peter’s worked with the local county schools on a distribution system, and organized members of the parish to deliver desks to students in need.
Working together, apart: