History of The Falls Church
For Further Reading: Bibliography of Historical Sources
The first church to be built after it was established by the Colonial General Assembly in 1732 was a wooden building on this site as a part of Truro Parish. It was completed in 1734 by Richard Blackburn on land donated by John Trammell. Until that time, this area was served by a clergyman who lived near present-day Quantico, and the nearest church was Occoquan Church near Lorton.
The name "The Falls Church" came from its geographical location. Among the very few, widely separated churches in the parish, this church was identified as the one that was "near the falls" of the Potomac River. One of the roads which intersected near the church led to the ferry below the Little Falls. The Falls Church was the name commonly used after 1757. The name Falls Church was adopted by the community which developed around the church, and subsequently by the city when it was incorporated in 1948.
In 1762, the wood building was judged to be "greatly in decay". The vestry (the church governing body), meeting at The Falls Church, ordered a new brick building constructed on the same site. In 1763, George Washington and George William Fairfax were appointed church wardens with responsibility to contract for a new building. This was Washington’s last official act on behalf of this church after the parish was divided in 1765 and before work began. After 1765, the seat of Truro Parish, which had been here, returned to the southern part of the county and this church became the seat of the new Fairfax Parish.
Work on the new church was begun in 1767 by Colonel James Wren who had designed the building and was a member of the vestry. The new building was completed late in the fall of 1769. It is the oldest remaining church building north of Quantico in Virginia.
During the Revolutionary War the building was a recruiting station for the Fairfax militia. Tradition holds that the Declaration of Independence was read to local citizens from the steps of the south doors. After the "disestablishment" of the Anglican Church in 1784, the building was virtually abandoned. Those whose leadership helped to once again open the doors of the church for worship in the early 1800's included Francis Scott Key, who was a lay reader, and Henry Fairfax, who used his own funds to restore the building. Several of the early students and faculty members of the Virginia Theological Seminary, which was established in 1829, traveled to The Falls Church to hold services.
Services were again disrupted during the Civil War when the church was used by Union troops as a hospital and later as a stable. An active congregation has worshipped here continuously since about 1873.
The interior was repaired by Fairfax in 1838-39, again after the Civil War, and remodeled in 1908. The most extensive renovations were completed in 1959. At that time, the galleries, which had been provided in Wren’s design but were omitted from the original construction, were finally installed and a new chancel was added.
The structure of the church, except for repairs of war damage and the chancel addition, is the original 1769 construction. Some of the repairs made after the Civil War are evident in brickwork below the windows and in the lower part of the brick doorway at the west end of the church. The Federal Government repaired and paid for damages caused by Union forces.
The Historic Church and Property
West Entrance (Narthex)
This has been the main entrance since 1865. In colonial times the principal entrance was by the south doors; it remained so until the interior was changed with the 1865 repairs.
Aisles in the colonial church were located as now, but were then paved with tiles and were somewhat wider. A single row of box pews, each with a door and with the floors raised slightly above the aisles were located to the side of each aisle; two rows of box pews were in the center of the nave between the aisles. That arrangement remained substantially unchanged until 1861. Between 1861 and 1865 the interior of the church was virtually gutted. The present interior, from 1959, is the fourth version.
Several pews have silver markers. Those on the fifth row are in memory of George Washington and Robert E Lee. They were given by local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1926.
This stone font is from the colonial period. It was taken to the Star Tavern by a soldier and consigned for shipment to his home around 1863. It was recognized and hidden by local townspeople, and returned to the church in 1876.
The present chancel was built in 1959 by removing part of the original east wall. Until then, the holy table and communion rail were along that wall. Until 1861-65, colonial tablets with the Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, and Creed were also above the altar on the east wall. These, too, were destroyed during the Civil War. The eight tiles below the Present table are from the original 1769 aisles.
The wide space between the two center windows in the north wall marks the location of the colonial pulpit, which was high, reached by several steps and had a sounding board above. In 1838, the pulpit was moved nearer the east wall in the chancel area. Its present site dates from 1959.
The pipe organ, installed in 1967, is the first in this church. Built by the Schantz Organ Co., the 750-pipe instrument is divided into two sections. The great organ is exposed on the gallery rail and the swell organ is enclosed in a case on the west wall. The Irene Mori Memorial Harpsichord (Zuckermann, 1973) was built by members of this Parish.
The oldest marked graves (1805) are below the large white oak in the south yard, but earlier burials occurred here. Records show payments in 1778 to the sexton for mending graves. Rounded indentations in the 1805 stone likely resulted from bullets fired by soldiers quartered here in 1861-65. A Revolutionary War veteran’s grave is near the wall, west of the 1805 stone. A monument commemorating Henry Fairfax’s restoration of the church in the 1830s is near the west end of the south walk. The inscription is copied from the text of a lost plaque reported by a Civil War correspondent in Harper’s Weekly of August 31, 1861. At the west end of the front walk is a marker for an unknown Confederate soldier. Near the north fence is the grave of Mr. Read, minister of the Baptist Church who was shot by Col. Mosby (the "Gray Ghost" of the Civil War) as a spy in 1862. Near the north walk, four dornicks (rough, low stones) predate any standing gravestones.
The oldest tree
The oldest tree on the grounds is a huge white oak (south yard) - it is the largest specimen of Quercus alba now recorded in Virginia. Other large trees include a tulip poplar, hickory, silver maple and American holly. Major trees are marked with common and botanical names.
A garden has been developed in the east end of the north yard - only native trees, ferns and wildflowers are used. Between that garden and the educational wing is the site of the colonial Vestry House, a one room frame building which served as the "seat" of the parish.
Memorial Garden Chapel
A small chapel was added and consecrated in 2004 in the Memorial Garden. With its peaceful ambience and period furnishings, It has become a wonderful place for worship, celebrating small, intimate services, and a quiet place to be near loved ones at rest in the Memorial Garden.
A new sanctuary which seats 800, was added in 1992 to the east end of the education and administration building.
In 2000, the church bought the Southgate property and signed a purchase option on the adjacent parking lot. This property was purchased to handle, in the short term, the educational needs of the congregation. In the long term, it is our prayer that we will be able to convert the space into a building that will support the mission of TFCE.