The building of the first Catholic church in Warrenton

Ann Payne’s Tenacity of Faith

Now tucked away and somewhat lost on East Lee Street behind a large For Sale sign, is the original location of Saint John the Evangelist Church. Though no longer consecrated as sacred ground, it stands in dignity whispering its tales. On the day of the building was completed, July 16, 1861, the grace of the liturgy did not speak from the altar, the cries of the wounded and dying echoed instead from the ravages of the First Battle of Manassas. The Mass envisioned by Ann America Semmes Payne would not be given until October by Bishop McGill, (Third Bishop of Richmond, 1850-1872. His diocese consisted of all of Virginia.) with his consecration of the building as a Catholic Church.

The beginning of this history commenced fourteen years prior in 1847. Ann America Semmes Payne, recently wedded, arrived in Warrenton as Rice W. Payne’s bride. Her family, the Semmes, were devout Catholics from Holy Trinity in Georgetown, which, she was distressed to find was the only Catholic Church near Warrenton, 60 miles away. A well-educated woman, she was quite aware that with the growing Catholic population in Virginia, especially of Irish Catholics, many other religious sects, most prominently Protestants, coupled with the expanding Know Nothing Party, opposed the building of a Catholic Church in Warrenton.

In this atmosphere, Ann felt keenly the isolation and loneliness of being one of the few Catholics in Fauquier County. Determined and steadfast, Ann immediately set about rectifying the grave situation by solidifying her resolve for the arduous task ahead; to raise the funds for their church. By July of 1860 the sum which she collected was $3,154.59 and a year later to the day, Saint John’s was completed. Yet by forces that amassed in Manassas, Bishop McGill’s blessing and consecration had to be postponed, the second day of the Battle of Manassas was in full fury. Ann immediately volunteered Saint John’s for the wounded that were arriving. At last on October 20, 1861 the first Mass was sacrificed, and her son Gaston, the first baptism, later became a priest and served at Saint John’s.

Perhaps in a cruel irony, Ann became the first funeral service held in January of 1862, a week after the birth of a daughter, her eighth child. On the front piece of the old ledger marking the subscriptions of donations, it is written;

The charitable undertaking of erecting a house of divine worship for Catholics of Warrenton, and vicinity, was commenced be America Semmes Payne, at a time when she was the only representative of the Holy Catholic Church in this community. To accomplish the work she struggled alone for fourteen years, and through unequalled energy and perseverance her labors were crowned with complete success. She was the chosen instrument of planting the seed of faith in this region, and the Church is a fit monument to her pious exertions.”

By 1962 the Church was too small for the rapid growing Catholic population and a new Saint John’s was necessary. The new church was built on the land of the old Stuyvesant School and was completed in 1963.

In a letter written to her sister shortly after her arrival to Warrenton in November of 1847, Ann explains the situation quite well.

25 December, 1847

My Dear Sister,

May I tell you the beginnings of the married life’s sacrament are euphoric. Our sojourn to New Orleans was quite delightful, I was able to visit with our cousins and introduce my new husband. They were of course curious and somewhat concerned that I married out of the Faith. I assured them that the coming children will be raised as fine Catholics and yes we were married in Holy Trinity. By wondrous chance, Bishop Whelan from the Richmond diocese was visiting for the month organizing the necessity of the routes for the circuit riding priests in the far flung reaches of Virginia’s Catholics. He promised to stop in Warrenton when the opportunity arose in the very near future. I found him a delightful man, quite worthy of his vocation.

But now there are other topics I would care to discuss with you, the first is Warrenton, though it is the county seat, this town is many miles from my beloved Georgetown. Life here with its unpaved streets and nothing in the way of our Church for attendance, is the trial my faith has given me. I should accept this cheerfully and with joy, but the inability to attend Mass, I would not have thought possible, my rosary though, daily keeps my strength. At the time I was speaking with Bishop Whelan, I was unaware that there was no Catholic Church in Fauquier County. I have already posted a letter to him in this regard and by his authority ought to be able to augment this terrible situation.

I miss the stillness of silence in her sanctuary. There is something so calming and yet at the same time a great will for us to defeat the sins we commit within our hearts, seemingly without purpose or intent. The minor trivialities that create an overmastering importance in the moment of anger, greed and arrogance, which we then later, in shame remember increases our absolute need for reconciliation without delay. One attempts foolish excuses for reasons and those quickly pale in comparison to our Lord’s sacrifice. We have more to reproach ourselves than the moment of circumstances.

Some days are more difficult to contend with and struggle through than others. Fortunately, the others are far more numerous than the curmudgeon ones.

Shall write again soon,

Your loving sister, Ann

About the author:

Ann Casey, owner of Scribe’s Corner, is a published author and historical researcher, presently at work on her book Thieves, Rogues and Vagabonds, America’s First Slaves.


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