St. Stephen’s Story

It was a time of dedication, a time for blessing.   At St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church in Middleburg, a Mass of Dedication took place to dedicate the installation of a new marble altar on Sept. 9. Under the direction of the Rev. Christopher D. Murphy, pastor at St. Stephen, a series of interior renovations were completed, but it was the installation of the new Italian marble altar—and its spiritual significance—that brought out Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Arlington Diocese. Burbidge led a special liturgy to bless the altar, which included a ritual of anointing it with chrism oil to set it aside as a sacred place.

A reception followed in the parish hall so parishioners and visitors could enjoy a time of fellowship. Since July 2014, Murphy has been the pastor of St. Stephen, and much of his efforts have focused on overseeing improvements to the rectory and the parish hall. It’s been decades since the church underwent changes. Established under the Diocese of Richmond as a mission on Oct. 6, 1957, the faith community first met at Middleburg Community Center in the Town of Middleburg. On April 21, 1963, the church building on Sam Fred Road was dedicated. It became a parish in June 1975.

In addition to the new altar, renovations inside the church include a new confessional. For years, confessions had been heard in a small closet-sized space that had multiple uses. Father Murphy wanted to offer confessions in a more sacred place set apart for this important sacrament. Other renovations include a new altar rail, new baptismal font, the refurbishment of pews, architectural finishes plus energy-efficient lighting. The new Spanish porcelain tiles that replaced the carpet arrived just days before the dedication along with the Italian altar. “But it’s the altar that is really the focal point in Catholic churches, and that’s what brought out the bishop,” Murphy explained. “The altar is the center of thanksgiving and is where the Eucharist and other sacraments are celebrated. The bishop anointed it with chrism oil to set it aside for God’s purposes.” Relics of three saints were installed into the altar.

Murphy explained more history of the church’s origins. He said, “This was the only Catholic church between Winchester and Clarke County. There wasn’t another Catholic church until you got to Chantilly.” In 2000, there was an uptick in development in Chantilly and in the Gainesville area. As a result, the pastor at the time, Father Joseph P. Biniek, soon discovered he had a huge crowd on his hands and was faced with the need to expand. However, St. Stephen only has three acres with limited growth potential.

The solution? To establish two nearby missions: St. Katharine Drexel Mission in Haymarket, which was established in 2000 and became a mission in 2005, and Corpus Christi in South Riding, which became a parish in November 2014. Murphy is pastor of both St. Stephen and St. Katharine Drexel. “I remember when we first met at the old PACE West School in 2000 [now QBE Business Park] in Gainesville,” said John Stirrup, who along with his wife, Heidi, attend St. Katharine Drexel Sunday masses at Bull Run Middle School in Gainesville. “Father Biniek saw a need to accommodate the growing Catholic community. St. Katharine Drexel plans to build on Route 15 near Waterfall Road on over 20 acres of land. This gives us the possibility for future growth.”

St. Stephen is widely known as the “Kennedys’ church” since President John F. Kennedy and his family worshipped there; a gold plaque marks their pew. They attended mass while staying at their horse-country farm, first leasing Glen Ora in Upperville, and then purchasing land and building their Wexford estate in Atoka (now Marshall) just outside of Middleburg. Wexford, completed in June 1963, is a 167-acre property overlooking the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, and was named by Jackie Kennedy after the county in Ireland that has Kennedy roots.

Before the church was completed, Kennedy attended services at Middleburg Community Center. When the church opened its doors in the spring of 1963, the president attended mass in the new church outfitted with a soundproof, bullet-proof usher’s room where he could take calls. But Kennedy only would attend mass twice at the current location: October 27 and November 10, 1963. Just 12 days after his last mass in Middleburg, he was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Hours after Kennedy’s death, Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the nation’s 36th president on Air Force One. Instead of the usual Bible used for the presidential oath of office, a Catholic Sunday Missal was used. It was found on a side table in Kennedy’s Air Force One bedroom.

This missal has ties to Middleburg. It was given to Kennedy by Father Albert Pereira of St. Stephen.  With all this rich history, it’s no wonder that Murphy was motivated to preserve St. Stephen as the country church people loved while still initiating needed changes. Miller Brothers, Inc., a third-generation construction company in Marshall, was chosen to complete the renovations and install the altar. Regina Miller, wife of Glenn Miller, whose grandfather started the business, reached out to the community to help get the word out about the renovations.

Murphy said, “I’m grateful to have parishioners from St. Katharine Drexel come to our Middleburg church, not only for this dedication but for other events. There’s lots of interaction between the two communities. It’s a small country church celebrating the growth in our missions.


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