Founded in 1795, the Basilica of Saint Mary, located in Alexandria, Virginia, is the first Catholic parish in the Commonwealth of Virginia and West Virginia, which were one state territory up until 1863. President George Washington made the first contribution for the creation of a Catholic parish in Virginia in the late 1700s, equivalent to approximately $1,200 today. A donation was made for a portion of land at the sound end of the city on Church and S. Washington Streets. It was here that the first brick structure known as the Church of Saint Mary was built under the guidance of the Very Reverend Francis Ignatius Neale, S.J. in 1795. The land later became, and still remains today, the Church of Saint Mary’s cemetery, the first Catholic cemetery in Virginia.
In 1810, the parish moved to its present location in the heart of the city at 310 South Royal Street. By 1826, Pastor Fr. Joseph Fairclough erected the Sanctuary and the major portion of the present-day church, which was formally dedicated in 1827. Throughout the 1800s, the Church of St. Mary played a crucial role in the growth of Catholicism in Virginia. Many mission churches that the Church of St. Mary established have gone on to become independent parishes within the Diocese of Arlington.
Today, the Basilica of Saint Mary continues to be a vibrant and lively parish community with 54 apostolate groups, 400 parishioners regularly volunteering throughout the community, 18 lay staff members and three full-time priests. In 2020, the Church of St. Mary will celebrate 225 years of parish life. St. Mary’s School (K-8) had a record enrollment of 712 students for this academic year (2017-2018), and will also celebrate a historic 150th anniversary in 2019.