NEW YORK – Like it was yesterday, Mike Marshall recalls rolling out of bed one day in 2013, and, as if a loudspeaker had gone off, he knew God was telling him to build a Catholic church in Crozet, Virginia, an outpost of just over 9,000 souls.
Now a decade later, albeit not in your typical church building, that dream is being realized.
The Crozet Catholic community, a mission within the Diocese of Richmond, will gather for the first time in their own church building on Oct. 7, in a former Bank of America branch in the heart of downtown they recently purchased for $1.72 million.
The building still looks like a bank, and likely will for some time. It’s a beige brick square building with a flat roof and two covered drive-through lanes. But beyond its appearance, the fact of owning their own space, as Marshall put it, is like “a Saturn V liftoff” (a reference to the rocket used by NASA for nine crewed flights to the moon from 1967 to 1973) for the Catholic community.
Reflecting on the past decade, Marshall acknowledges the challenges the community has faced, particularly through the COVID-19 pandemic, but said he never worried about failure.
“I didn’t really have any fear of failure. At times I felt like I didn’t understand how [God] was working, but that’s life. I never understand how life is working, but I know it’s intended and that I have to do my job,” Marshall, the longtime editor and publisher of the Crozet Gazette newspaper, told Crux.
“In my opinion, I think God means something to come out of Crozet.”
Crozet is a small town about 20 miles west of Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. The town’s experienced constant growth since the turn of the century. In 2000 its population was about 2,000 people, and now the population is north of 9,000, according to the latest Census figures.
Marshall, who has lived in Crozet for 42 years, said because of the growth of the community he thought there was good reason for the town to have a Catholic church. At that time, Catholics in the town belonged to parishes in Charlottesville and other surrounding areas.
Marshall said he approached the diocese with the idea in 2006, and that they sent someone out, but nothing really came of it.
With the diocese noncommittal, Marshall said he dropped the idea until that morning in 2013, when “God told [him] to get on this.” He then went around to “all of the parishes in the surrounding area” to ask each priest if they would offer Mass in Crozet, and the answers were “uniformly no.”
There was, however, one priest who eventually agreed. It was Ugandan Father Joseph Mary Lukyamuzi, who around that time had just taken over the Church of the Holy Comforter in Charlottesville. Lukaymuzi’s only stipulation was that he needed permission from Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, who led the Diocese of Richmond at the time, which was granted.
“From the way that I look at my vocation as a priest, to reach out to people, to be with the spirit of a missionary in whatever situation,” Lukaymuzi told Crux about why he agreed.
“And at that time, the diocese advocated reaching out to people who had gone away from the church and building up small Catholic communities, so I said yes because that was an occasion for me to reach out to such people,” he said.
Lukaymuzi celebrated the first Mass for what was then known as the “Crozet Catholic Community” in a local elementary school gym on March 10, 2014. Marshall said about 250 people attended. They started out with a monthly Mass that grew into a weekly Mass.
Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond then made Crozet a formal mission in 2017, as the community had about 300 parishioners attend Mass every Sunday, and a religious education program. Attendance peaked at around 550 people in 2019, Marshall said.
“We didn’t have any problem getting lift off. We knew that a lot of people in town were Catholics that would support us if we got a parish going,” Marshall said. “It grew very well.”
Lukyamuzi led Mass for the community up until that year, when Knestout turned the mission over to the Church of the Incarnation in Charlottesville, and its pastor Monsignor Timothy Keeney. Then COVID-19 hit, and like parishes nationwide, the Crozet Catholic community took a hit and lost many members.
During the pandemic, the elementary school they worshiped in was locked down to outsiders and they were “homeless,” unable to hold Mass or religious education classes. Eventually, of all places, Crozet Baptist Church allowed them to rent space and to hold Mass on Sundays at 1:30 p.m., and offered another space to restart their religious education program.
By that time, the community had fallen to about 50 parishioners.
“There was a worry universally for the church, and I think all churches, because of that steep decline, but we were sort of extra worried because we were still forming,” Betty Groth, a member of the Crozet Catholic community since its inception, and its head of communications, told Crux. “There was a lot of prayer.”
As the diocese and society began to open back up, the Crozet Catholic community began to regrow. But that growth was limited by the fact that they held Mass at 1:30 p.m. All those Crux spoke with highlighted the importance of finding their own location, in order to be able to hold a morning Mass.
The search began. They initially searched for a plot of buildable land with more acreage to eventually grow into, but had little luck. With the surrounding community experiencing such growth, a lot of the available land has already been purchased by developers.
Then, the bank went up for auction. The diocese agreed to let them put in a bid and the rest, as they say, is history. They purchased the property for $1.72 million – about $800,000 from the mission funds raised through a capital campaign, and the other approximately $900,000 taken out as a loan, Keeney said.
When the deal closed, Marshall said he couldn’t believe it. He described the location as perfect, given that it’s downtown and easy walking distance for many of the parishioners – “it sort of has that European aspect to it, where the Catholic churches are always in some sort of central spot.”
“It’s a little astonishing. It’s been a lot of exasperation,” Marshall said of the purchase.
“We thought we were going to pull the short straw and not get it, and lo and behold God gave it to us,” he continued. “The thing was, after all of this discouragement, where we thought we weren’t going to get what we’re aiming to get, in the end he delivers. I mean, [God] is just so freaking generous.”
Groth called it “providential” that they finally have a home.
“It’s completely exciting. It’s the answer to so many prayers,” Groth said. “The fact that it’s in the heart of downtown is providential. It’s so exciting to finally have a home. We’ve had the church for nine years and now we have the building.”
Keeney said he envisions the community will be able to get back up to 200-300 people attending Mass once they offer it in the morning at the new location, with the first Mass being Saturday, October 7, which is the mission’s feast day.
It chose the name, with Knestout’s approval, Our Lady of the Rosary.
From now until Oct. 7, parishioners say they’ll do whatever they can to make the building look more like a church. Keeney said they have about $20,000 left over for short term renovations, but long term, the plan is to do a more complete renovation to create something more traditional.
For now, though, he said more than anything “it means so much” to the community to have the space.
Lukyamuzi, who hopes to attend the Oct. 7 Mass, said he is excited about the achievement.
“I’m so excited about such an achievement and I’ve been praying to see that, that community could grow and it’s a very promising community,” Lukyamuzi said.
For Knestout, who took over the Diocese of Richmond in 2017, the Our Lady of the Rosary mission is the first mission or parish community he’s established, something he said will be rewarding to watch grow. He said it was always his own personal prayer to have the first dedicated to Our Lady, and so the name “Our Lady of the Rosary” fulfills both that desire, and is an ode to the Crozet community’s French history.
“For me, personally, it’s very rewarding,” Knestout told Crux. “I’m very grateful to be a part of something that will look for growth in the future, and just expand the ability of the church to carry out its mission.”
Looking ahead to that first Mass, Marshall remembers when the parish community began they stored everything for Mass in a couple of closets the school loaned to them. Every week, they would come in hours before Mass was scheduled to begin to set up banners on the altar end of the wall, and hang up pictures of Mary, Joseph and the Holy Ghost.
Basically, every Sunday they transformed that elementary school gym into as much of a church as they could, took it down after Mass, and did it all over again the next week.
“Of course, now we don’t have to take any of it down,” Marshall said. “Everybody is so excited.”
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