A history buff's dream

Christ Church is a history buff’s dream.

Whether by bus or by car, researchers, students and tourists flock there to study it — or just to enjoy a service.

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Located in Old Town Alexandria, the city once frequented by the father of our country, George Washington, and, generations later, claimed as the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee, Christ Church is situated on North Washington Street — blocks away from the Potomac River waterfront and numerous eateries on King Street.

Conducting tours are the docents — the trained historians, tour guides and hosts. 

Working from noon to 4 p.m. each day, they are dressed in casual clothing, not clerical garb, and are as willing to teach individuals as large tour groups. 

Historic Christ Church was completed in 1773, when Virginia was still one of the original 13 colonies and was part of the Anglican Church. The Protestant Episcopal Church had yet to form.

“This is not a high Episcopal church,” says Dell Sanderson, who has been a docent at Christ Church for over 10 years. There are no “smells and bells.” In other words, less glitz and pomp compared to high Episcopal churches.

Architecturally, Christ Church has a unique, royal and simple elegance to it that does not detract from the quality of the services.

Like many other buildings in Alexandria, Christ Church is designed in the Colonial Georgian style.

Although the interior of the building has received a few modifications over time, since the 1890s it has virtually been consistent with the original Georgian detailing.

When you walk into the sanctuary, you will immediately notice the wine-glass pulpit installed during the 1890s restoration. The all-white pulpit is on an elevated floor and stands over 10 feet high. 

To the left and right of the pulpit, you’ll notice original hand-lettered tablets, which were required to be displayed by canon law at the time of installation, aged to olive and gold tones containing the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.

On either side of those stand the marble memorials to Washington and Lee.

Washington himself was known to be a pious churchgoer, attending whenever he could; Lee was confirmed here. Washington’s pew, which is still in its original configuration, remains the place to sit for guests and special invitees; Lee’s pew blends in with the others.

Visitors often meander around the front of the sanctuary to sit in Washington’s pew just to say they did it. But dozens of special guests have sat there, too.

The tradition is to invite presidents around Washington’s birthday to attend service and sit in his pew. 

George W. Bush did so during his second term. Since 1900, only three presidents haven’t attended service there: Clinton, Nixon and Kennedy.

President Obama has been invited. But no word yet on whether he’ll accept before next year’s reelection bid.

Several interesting people are buried in the courtyard outside. Mostly notably, former U.S. Treasury Secretary (1965-1968) Henry Hammill Fowler is buried alongside his wife, Trudye Hathcote Fowler. 

Less than a hundred feet away you will find a Confederate gravesite where 34 Confederate soldiers are buried. 

“Christ Church is people” is the saying around there.

“We want people to know that we are not just a museum,” says Ann Gillespie, an associate rector for worship and pastoral care since 2007. 

Linda Dienno, director of stewardship, says that “we are not the building — we are the hands and feet that work to help transform the world and bring others to Jesus Christ.”

And while it has plenty of history to talk about, the congregation likes to be known as a “living congregation.”

“The congregation is very proud of their history,” says Mary Thompson, author of In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington, “but they aren’t living in the past.” 

“They are very involved with Bible study, caring for the poor and homeless in the community, and quite warm and welcoming to visitors,” she continues.

From George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon — depending on whether he was riding horseback or coach — a trip to Christ Church would have taken 90 minutes to two hours. Today it takes about 20 minutes. 

Upon returning home from church on Nov. 17, 1799, George Washington wrote in his diary:

“17. A very heavy & thick fog — morning calm, & Mer. at 41. About 2 oclock [sic] the Sun came out and the afternoon was pleasant. Went to Church in Alexandria & dined with Mr. Fitzhugh. On my return fd. [found] Mr. McCarty here on his way back from the Federal City. Young McCarty came to Dinr [dinner].”

Less than a month later, our first president was dead. He may be long gone, but his spirit lingers in Christ Church.