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St. Mary's Cemetery

Discover the Oldest Catholic Cemetery in Virginia: St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery

Entrance gate to St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery

Historic Context

The historic St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery is situated at 1000 S. Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, and boasts a rich history dating all the way back to 1795. Holding the distinction of being the oldest Catholic Cemetery in Virginia, this sacred ground has become a testament to the passage of time.

Within its serene confines lie the remains of over 5100 individuals, each with their own story. Among those interred here is Jim Aloysius Shaw (August 19, 1893 – January 27, 1962), a prominent figure who graced the baseball world. Shaw gained fame as a pitcher for the Washington Senators, a role he held from 1913 to 1921. He was fondly known as “Grunting” Jim Shaw, his unique moniker derived from the unmistakable grunting sound that punctuated his every pitch from the mound. As a part of the storied history of St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery, Jim Shaw’s legacy lives on, etched into the annals of both sports and local heritage.

“Grunting” Jim Shaw. Pitcher for the Washington Senators between 1913-1921. United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs Division

The cemetery also houses the resting places of five valiant Revolutionary War veterans, their contributions a testament to the nation’s historic struggle. However, it’s important to note that amidst the many sources suggesting otherwise, Colonel John Fitzgerald is not among those laid to rest within these grounds.

John Fitzgerald

Colonel Fitzgerald arrived in Alexandria back in 1769, establishing himself as a successful merchant and a close friend of George Washington in the years preceding the war. Taking up the mantle of a major in the 3rd Virginia Regiment, he played a pivotal role in the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776, a turning point that marked Washington’s first triumph against the British forces. His dedication to the cause led to his appointment as aide-de-camp, serving loyally on Washington’s staff. He was at Washington’s side during pivotal engagements such as the battles of Trenton (1776), Princeton, Brandywine, and Germantown (1777), as well as the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778, where he sustained injuries. Following this, he left the military and returned to Alexandria, marrying Jane (Jenny) Digges from Warburton Manor, Maryland. Fitzgerald seamlessly resumed his successful prewar pursuits.

In April of 1781, when an enemy naval force threatened to lay waste to Alexandria, Fitzgerald’s leadership rallied the local militia, deterring the British from landing through his sheer determination.

Fitzgerald’s contributions to Alexandria extended beyond the battlefield. He served as the city’s mayor from 1792 to 1794, was an esteemed town council member, and played a role in the Alexandria Academy’s board of trustees. An influential figure, he was appointed to the Library Company of Alexandria, one of the earliest libraries in the United States, in 1794. His involvement was not limited to local affairs – he participated in examining the U.S. Constitution as part of a local committee. Named President of the Potowmack Company in 1793, he championed the ambitious project of constructing roads and canals linking Virginia with the Ohio River Valley, although this endeavor ultimately met with failure. In the same year, Washington appointed him as the Collector of the Port.

Fitzgerald’s demise on December 2, 1799 marked the end of a remarkable era. He was laid to rest with full military honors at his wife’s estate in Prince George’s County, Maryland, near present-day Fort Washington. His contributions reverberated through Alexandria’s history, leaving an enduring legacy. Among his enduring marks is a three-story warehouse on the southeast corner of King and Union Streets, built in 1781. This building, now housing a Starbucks and a restaurant, is adorned with a plaque commemorating Fitzgerald, added in 1976 as a testament to his enduring impact.

Enduring Icon: Fitzgerald’s Warehouse in 1970 – A Stalwart Landmark since 1781, Presently Housing Starbucks and a Restaurant. Take Note of the Union Street Railroad Tracks. Photograph Sourced from Page 62 of “Historic Alexandria Virginia Street By Street, A Survey of Existing Early Buildings,” Published in 1976 by The Historic Alexandria Foundation.

The Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town

A Remarkable Legacy: Among his many contributions, the most significant resides in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, now recognized as the Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town, situated at 310 S. Royal Street. During a momentous dinner held at his residence on St. Patrick’s Day in 1788, a gathering aimed at raising funds for the church, George Washington generously donated $1200, marking a pivotal moment.

In 1795, a decade after the implementation of the Act Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, the congregation embarked on the construction of a church near the current site of St. Mary’s Cemetery. Although this project remained incomplete, its legacy persisted through the bricks repurposed for the construction of the Alexandria Lyceum.

In 1810, the congregation acquired the Chapel Alley Meeting House from a Methodist congregation on South Royal Street. A cornerstone was laid in 1826 for a sanctuary measuring 40 x 60 feet, an edifice that saw its dedication in 1827. Evolving through multiple expansions and renovations, the church underwent a significant reconstruction in 1894, culminating in its present-day form, featuring added seating and a towering 135-foot belfry.

Today, the Basilica of St. Mary in Old Town stands as a vibrant congregation embedded within the heart of Old Town, its roots tracing back to the very inception of the United States. This enduring connection owes much to the profound friendship between John Fitzgerald and George Washington.

Given its location beyond the boundary lines of the District of Columbia, St. Mary’s Catholic Church Cemetery remained unaffected by the “stoppages” of 1804 and 1809. Thus, regular burials have taken place on these hallowed grounds since 1795, each contributing to its rich tapestry.

Sources of Information

Hurt, Harold W. Alexandria on the Potomac The Portrait of an Antebellum Community. University Press of America. Lanham, Maryland. 1991.

Powell, Mary Gregory. Index by Pippenger, Wesley E. The History of Old Alexandria, VA from July 13, 1749 – May 24, 1861. Westminster, Maryland, Willow Bend Books. 2000.

Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volume 5, Family Line Publications, Berwyn Heights, MD. 2014.

See the official site of The Basilica of St. Mary’s in Old Town for additional information on its history.

See the official website of George Washington’s Mount Vernon for additional information on John Fitzgerald.

See the official website of Major League Baseball for additional information on Jim Shaw.

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By David

As a public historian, I am dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich history of Alexandria, Virginia, and the surrounding region. With a deep passion for bringing the past to life, I serve my community in this meaningful role.

Before this, I enjoyed a fulfilling career as a businessman and entrepreneur. Now retired, I have found a new sense of purpose in my work as a public historian.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as the Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Alexandria. This cemetery holds a special place in my family's history, as it was started in the early 1800s by the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, a historic congregation dating back to 1772 that is situated one mile east in the heart of Old Town. The cemetery is the final resting place of my parents, and the Meeting House is where I have worshipped for over 60 years.

As a public historian, I am thrilled to lead tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery, which has thirteen cemeteries in a complex with over 35,000 interments. It is considered the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States. These sacred grounds offer a fascinating glimpse into the story of Alexandria and its people. I also enjoy guiding tours of nearby Civil War battlefields, combining my passion for history with the compelling narratives of those who fought and fell on these hallowed grounds, bringing their stories to life. I primarily lead tours of Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, and the Antietam Battlefields, along with tracing the footsteps of those involved in the Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. I am also a licensed tour guide in Washington, D.C.

To further engage the community, I manage a blog focused on Alexandria's cemeteries, where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized. I am also an active Board Member of the Alexandria Historical Society and the Lee-Fendall House Museum.

Whether you are a resident or a visitor to the area, I invite you to explore Alexandria's rich history by joining one of my cemetery or battlefield tours, reading my blog, or connecting with me on social media. It is my sincere pleasure to bring the city's captivating past to life and serve my community meaningfully.

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