April 26

Sunday, April 26th

Good morning, Good morning,

Heraclitus (544-483 BC), one of the ancient Greek philosophers offered a quote that is apropos for today’s Millennial generation.  “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”  The same can be said for the future priests who serve in the Diocese of Arlington.  The pandemic may well impose a new challenge in how men of prayer, in their religious vocations will be able to preach with courage, teach with clarity, and serve with charity.  That said, this letter is dedicated to the two seminarians stationed with us at St. Francis De Sales Rectory during the pandemic.  John Paul Heisler and Caleb Magowan.   Ad Multos Annos. To Many Years.  Now, onto the stories.

When entering the Shenandoah Valley from the North on I-81 your mind can be quite utilitarian.  You count the miles to the Tennessee boarder and the stops required for fuel and sustenance.  When you enter from the South on I-81 your mind belongs to the romantics.  You are in the home of the Appalachians, a people of ancient will, a most independent lot in their Protestant roots with a family philosophy founded on the writings of Sir Walter Scott. 

Please know, the American government classifies the Appalachians as a “minority.”  Like several other minorities in the Commonwealth they have a good chance, better than most, at college scholarships… up North in places called:  Harvard, Princeton, and Eli’s famous home… Yale.

If you enter the Valley from the East on I-64, when passing Charlottesville, your mind trembles with the notion that you are leaving civilization and you better not break down or you will start to hear the haunting theme from the old movie, “Deliverance.”


Of course the setting from the movie takes place in Georgia and not Virginia.  But when you’re from the East the folks from the Smokey Mountains are no different than those from the Appalachians. If you enter the Valley from the West on I-64 you are dropping out of the mountains of West Virginia and rolling hills of Kentucky beyond, your mind trembles because your leaving God’s country. 

The Valley is like a jewel with many facets with multiple rainbows of human experience.  There are no less the eight or nine reputable colleges and universities in the Valley, Catholics, Protestants, Cults and all sorts of racists and racial divides who somehow identify as religious call the Valley their home.  People of the computers and those of the stills from the hollers share the same sentiments of home in the Valley.  Various current political identities and those living out the romantic experiences of the War of Northern aggression also share the confidence of their neighbors.   God knows, somehow they all seem to get along, travelling at the same highway speeds, paying the same cost for gas and a gallon of milk.  Yes, God in his mysterious graces watches over the Valley.

Many years ago I was asked to serve in the part of the Valley known as Basye, near Orkney Springs, home to the Bryce Mountain Ski Resort.  The founder of the resort, Mr. Pete Bryce, was a wonderful and devout man.  He was a member of the Catholic mission, Our Lady of the Shenandoah Mission Chapel where I would hear confessions and say Mass. 

On one visit I was expected to stay a few extra days in the mission rectory, with all the comforts of home.  I brought my fly rod and stopped in to the Community Store, a tad bigger than a 7-11 convenient store, to pick up a fishing license.  I walked in and politely asked where I could buy such a license.  And then the world fell apart.  Some massive human being stepped out from behind the far stacks of food and blared with a baritone voice to match his girth, “Another one of those Damn Yankees come to take our fish.”  I, not wearing my clerics, clothed in my civvies, turned to him a looked right at him.  He wasn’t smiling.  I announced, “Sir, I was born in Memphis and my blood runs redder with the soil of the South than yours does.”  Then a smile crossed his face. “Why, I like that, boy.”  I got my license and left.  In the car I shuddered, if that monster had hit me I would have been dead on the way to the floor.  In some ways I truly was a foreigner in a strange land.

Now, once more, onto to the stories.  Please understand, in the history of the Commonwealth the churches of the Valley were predominately evangelical in nature.  Mostly Methodist and Presbyterian.  The ministers were circuit riders who would ride between very small churches that were centered in very small communities.  There Baptist and Anglican counterparts would hold the low lands, east of the Valley, with larger churches and members who would ride in to the Sunday gatherings.

Few of the Arlington or Richmond clergy are aware of it but in 1998 I was the first priest of the Arlington Diocese invited to give a mission in the Diocese of Richmond since the separation of the two dioceses… in 1974.  That is twenty-four years.  Now that is what we call a separated brethren.  Ha! Ha! Ha! In fact, I actually did two missions.  The first mission, St. Francis Parish, in Staunton. Some pronounce the place Staanton, others Stawnton.  I just called it, St. Francis.  The second was Fr. St. Patrick’s Church in Lexington.  That will remain another story.

One afternoon, during my free time at St. Francis I walked down to the town library and picked up a history book about the Catholics in the Shenandoah Valley.  The book had a chapter on St. Francis Church in Staunton, Virginia.  And that is where this story begins.


Prior to the Civil War the pastor of St. Francis Church in Staunton was, Fr. Daniel Downey.  He was from County Down, Ireland. He had served about fifteen years as pastor.  As time allowed, under his guidance the parish paid off the debt for the rectory near the church.  He hired an Irish orphan, Margaret Leigh, to serve as housekeeper. She was 24 years of age.  According to the Canon Law of the Church she was, “supra adulta,” an old woman.  Thus eligible to work in the rectory.  She had a young beau from Baltimore with dreams and designs of getting married at St. Francis.  One day it fell upon the ears of the good priest that the young supra adulta house keeper was with child, if you know what I mean.   Prince charming and some of the mothers of the parish involved in weddings were called to the rectory.  It came to be known that he, actually had a wife in Baltimore, with whom he was still bonded. While talking to the young man, alone, in the side room, a shot rang out.  And that’s where it gets very interesting. 

In one report the young man died on the floor in the side room.  In another the police found him out on the side walk.  It reminded me of my assignment in Springfield with the Lorton Prison close by.  In all the many years, Lorton Prison never lost a prisoner to death because they pronounced those who had assumed room temperature out in the parking lot and not inside the fence.  A murder in the rectory would have demanded the premises be re-consecrated.  The sidewalk was a good option to avoid that unwanted task.  In one report the priest was found to be inebriated, suffering from the Irish flu.  Doesn’t seem likely for a scheduled meeting with the mothers of the parish… but an interesting alibi if needed in a court of law.

“The next day at the hearing Father Downey confessed to the shooting but said it was an accident. The trial, which was held in June, ended in a hung jury.

An interesting fact uncovered at this trial was that the deceased had a wife living in Baltimore from whom he had separated. A second trial was scheduled for November. Because only nineteen unbiased jurors could be found in Augusta County, jurors for the pool were sought from Albemarle County. This second trial ended in a verdict of second degree murder, and on Nov. 15, 1858, Father Downey was sentenced to eight years in the penitentiary. At the request of Father Downey’s lawyer, however, the judge reviewed the case and ordered a new trial. The third trial commenced on Feb. 9, 1859. The prisoner was in poor health and fainted during the proceedings. This trial also resulted in a hung jury and a new trial was scheduled for May.
Because of the difficulty encountered in obtaining suitable jurors the fourth trial was held in Charlottesville: the jury acquitted Dr. Downey by reason of self-defense. After about a year and a half in jail, he was finally free”

The bishop of the Richmond Diocese, Bishop John McGill, suspended Fr. Downey, ultimately removing him from the priesthood, because of a diocesan restriction that priests were not allowed to have or use firearms.  End of the road for the priest in Staunton?  No, he affiliated with the new school system and remained in Staunton until his death in 1874.  And quite a death.  He had a Catholic funeral before the altar he offered Mass at for the better part of fifteen years.  The folks buried him in a glass coffin, dressed in his cassock, costing a sizeable two hundred dollars. They announced his vocation in his obituary.  The majority of his possessions went to his second housekeeper, Hannah Lowther. 

Fifty one years later she paid a thousand dollars for a monument to him… and herself.  She was buried next to him, in his plot, paying an additional one hundred dollars for the perpetual care of the plot.  May they rest in peace.


During the Civil War the towns of the Valley endured great suffering.  They were locked down so none of the folks might be mistaken for an enemy combatant or possibly conscripted into the Army against their will, much like the plot in the movie “Shenandoah” with James Stewart.  There was not a place in town or upon the farms that was considered safe for the local inhabitants. 


During the War Between the States the Reverend Joseph Bixio, S.J., was assigned to St. Francis Parish in Staunton.  Yes, he would have known Fr. Daniel Downey, now identified as Dr. Daniel Downey, associated with the town school system.  When Father Bixio was riding up from Harrisonburg he would write to Edward Sullivan, the postmaster in Staunton, a staunch Catholic, and tell him when he was coming to say Mass. The Catholic boys would spread the news to families in the county.

Union Chaplain Uniform

Confederate Chaplain Uniform

In addition to his pastoral duties, Father Bixio served as a Confederate chaplain. He served both sides in this capacity. While anointing an ill Union soldier, the priest appropriated the soldier’s uniform and then used the disguise to procure supplies for the parishioners in Staunton.

And now the rest of the story.  Fr. Bixio initiated the first great ecumenical movement in the Shenandoah Valley. Whichever army controlled the district adjacent to Staunton would find him arriving with his wagon,  wearing the appropriate uniform.  He was there to load up on supplies in flower, sugar, coffee, and a variety of other things.  Upon his return to Staunton everyone in the town, without exception, was welcome to the wagon.

At the end of the war the Union victors came looking for Fr. Bixio SJ, to cart him off to prison for impersonating a Union soldier during the war.  They came quickly and with many soldiers to canvas the town looking for the priest.   From the rectory search they found all the parishioner addresses to help expedite their efforts.  But no luck.  They spent a long time in Staunton but never found him.  The pious little Protestants, remembering his kindness to them had him under wraps.    He would never to return to Virginia.  Sadly, the good people of Staunton, in his departure, lost their second good priest. 

End of the road for this priest in Staunton?   No. When the coast was clear the good Jesuit went off to California, returning to his previous duties before the Civil War.  At that time he was actually one of the founding Jesuits of the University of San Francisco.  Nobody knew the true character of the Italian born Jesuit priest of St. Francis parish. His brother was a well-known general in the Italian Army. His family assisted General Giuseppe Garibaldi in the unification of Italy. 

On his return to California the Jesuits found him quite subdued.  One of the Jesuit confreres wrote about him and described him as, “Furtive.” An interesting term.   And here is the definition of the term, “attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically because of guilt or a belief that discovery would lead to trouble; secretive.” (Oxford Dictionary)  You know what the Jesuits say, “If the collar fits…”  He well understood, the Union Army reps could have shown up at any time… to introduce him to a life in prison ministry.

In closing, I might add, that General James Sheeran of the Confederate Chaplaincy Corps was completely baffled how Fr. Bixio was able to walk so easily among the Union troops… all the way to Harpers Ferry and back.  He may well have passed through the boundaries of the future St. Francis De Sales Parish in his travel to and from Staunton.  You just have to love those Jesuits.   I leave you with his obituary


“A Pioneer Priest Dead”:
San Jose, March 3 – Rev. Father Joseph Bixio, for many years assistant pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in this city, died at Santa Clara College last evening of heart disease. He was born in Genoa in 1819, was educated for the ministry and became a professor of rhetoric on the island of Sardinia, whence he and other Jesuits were expelled in 1848. He came to California in 1855, and served as a pastor in San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Clara until the breaking out of the Civil War, when he was transferred to Virginia, where his life was eventful and where he was once arrested as a spy, but was finally honorably released. Before the close of the war he returned to California and was made assistant pastor of the church here. For two years past he has been pastor at Santa Clara College.”



Dear Folks,
Though I don’t say it enough, I want to thank you for all your kindness to the parish when you mail in your weekly donation envelopes, send your donations in regular envelopes, or join the electronic donation program.  It means a great deal to all of us.  God bless you and may the Lord and His Blessed Mother watch over you and yours.  Love you much.

Let us pray for one another.

The foolish pastor.


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