What do a Confederate sympathizer, an Olympic swimmer and a graphic designer from Kansas all have in common? They are all part of the rich history of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, a faith community that predates the Civil War and has watched Catholicism grow and blossom in the commonwealth despite years of persecution.
For the past year, it has been the mission of two St. Mary parishioners, Donna Lee Davis and William J. Shorter, to ensure the 150-plus years of parish history is conveyed to the next generation through a book titled, Here is the Church: A History of St. Mary Parish.
The project started during a yard sale when Shorter, a longtime historian for the parish, approached Davis about writing the book.
“Bill walked in and asked me if I’d be interested,” said Davis. “We’d known each other since the 1980s when St. Mary had a bookstore, about the same time my first poetry book came out.”
The most recent history book about St. Mary’s had been written by Phillip V. Brennan Jr. in 1958 for the parish’s 100th anniversary. Davis and Shorter agreed that with more than 50 years of new history under the parish’s belt, it was time to put pen to paper.
Shorter delivered the fruits of his extensive research to Davis in May 2015. To her amazement, he turned over a computer thumb drive with more than 3,000 newspaper articles and stacks of printed material. Davis began without delay.
“I worked nearly every day for 10 months until I had the first draft finished,” said Davis. She learned more about her church than she ever thought possible. Using Shorter’s research as her guide, she visited several historical sites on her quest for accuracy. She went to the original St. Mary Church on Princess Ann Street, which had been used as a hospital during the Civil War. Touring the old building, she could imagine the cries of the injured men and see the hay that would have littered the sanctuary floor with no pews in sight.
“I had the same feeling when you visit a battlefield,” said Davis. “It wasn’t just good old St. Mary’s anymore, it was like a shrine.”
Davis enlisted the help of her nephew, Daniel T. Davis, to piece together Catholic life during the turbulent years after the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Research led her to the story of the charismatic Patrick McCracken, a recurring character in St. Mary’s history. According to family lore, the native Irishman traveled seven miles to bring food to a Union general who had been injured in battle, despite having once been imprisoned wrongly by Union forces.
“I got to feel like I knew the man,” said Davis.
The book is divided into three parts with an appendix brimming with added bonuses — a list of clergy and religious who served at the parish and a timeline of the parish history, as well as recipes.
The 260-page book Here is the Church will be available for purchase online and at St. Mary’s Bazaar Dec. 3.