Shortly after her husband was drafted into the military,
Stella Garcia helped pack up their little family and move to
Northern Virginia. They arrived from Texas Sept. 18, 1950, a
day she still remembers well. Over the next 66 years, Garcia
and her family made their home in the soon-to-be created
Garcia is a longtime parishioner of what became the Cathedral
of St. Thomas More, helping it become a church when it was
just a basement. She volunteered at Bishop O'Connell High
School in Arlington before it even opened its doors. She has
worked for 20 years and counting as the extended day
bookkeeper at St. Ann School, also in Arlington.
She passed on the faith to her seven children - Fred Jr.,
Nelda, Richard, Rosa, Michael, Carmela and Virginia - most of
whom still live in and attend parishes in the diocese,
including St. John Neumann Church in Reston, St. Leo the
Great Church in Fairfax and All Saints Church in Manassas.
In addition to working in Catholic education herself, her
daughter Nelda Thomas is vice principal of St. Thomas More
Cathedral School. Her daughter-in-law Valerie Garcia is
principal at Blessed Sacrament School in Alexandria. Her life
story is brimming with examples of using her talents to
support the local church.
Garcia's story began in Laredo, Texas, where she was born
June 6, 1926. She still remembers riding horses by the Rio
Grande as a child. "You never had such beautiful river
banks," she said as she sat in her son Michael Garcia's State
Farm office, sporting a lilac skirt suit. Her father was a
teacher and her mother was a successful businesswoman, who
mentored Garcia's future husband, Fred.
Just 10 days before she was to be married, Garcia's mother
fell ill with angina. She died just a few days later, with
Garcia at her side. Out of respect for her mother, they
postponed the wedding for two months and held only a small
civil ceremony in her family home. Years later, the couple
was married in the church at St. Thomas More by Father Adolph
The first time they went to Mass at St. Thomas More, Garcia's
husband was recovering from foot surgery, so she and the
children went alone. Msgr. Arthur J. Taylor, pastor, had
buses pick up the parishioners for Sunday Mass, said Garcia.
"The bus dropped us off and all you could see was the
convent," she said. "One nice lady said, 'Excuse me, can I
help you?' and I said, 'Where's the church?' " The woman
directed the family down the steps to the basement.
Soon, her children were attending St. Thomas More School. "In
1954 there were 1,300 students and 18 IHM (Sisters, Servant
of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) nuns. Mother Mary Ivo was
the principal - she was adorable.
Where my daughter
(Nelda) has her office (now), that's where Mother Mary Ivo's
office was." The school also had "the best cafeteria in the
world," she said.
Garcia was involved with many ministries in their parish,
like the Blessed Mary Virgin Sodality and assisting with the
adult library. In the mid-1960s, she served as treasurer for
the Arlington deanery. She and her husband also worked at St.
Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington. Today, Garcia still
changes out the candles in the cathedral, often bringing
along her granddaughter to help.
Garcia and her husband were two of the original donors for
the cathedral building, and their names are memorialized on a
plaque in the church. When she and her husband were looking
over the list of items one could donate toward, her husband
decided to designate the money for a set of doors. "Honey,
the front door will never get changed," he told her.
When St. Thomas More became the cathedral of the diocese in
1974, with it came the yearly Chrism Mass, which the Garcias
began to faithfully attend, in part to see all the diocesan
priests. In her years at the parish, she has befriended many
of them and all three of the bishops, she said.
Her son Fred said, "Mom recognizes that even though you wear
a robe or an alb, you're still human. She endears herself to
a lot of the priests."
When the diocese started O'Connell, Mother Mary Ivo was
chosen as principal and asked Garcia to set up the school
library. Thomas said, "She brought home cases of books and
would be in the kitchen with the electric labeler, writing
down the Dewey Decimal System."
Eventually, all the Garcia children attended O'Connell. "I
used to love going into the library," said Thomas. "Even when
my boys were in O'Connell, I would be trying to find any of
the books that were still there from 1960."
Bowling was a favorite hobby, and for years Garcia would go
every Wednesday night to the bowling alley with a league from
St. Thomas More. "(At first) I didn't know what bowling was,
but I went over and I liked it," she said. "My husband said
to the children, 'Wednesday is her day off. I'd rather she
hit the pins than hit you,' " she joked. Her 16 trophies are
displayed in her basement.
In 1995, her husband died and the next year she took the job
at St. Ann School, where Thomas was teaching. "She knows
where every child is supposed to be in the extracurricular
activities," and tells me all about it, said Thomas proudly.
Besides the St. Ann students, Garcia enjoys spending time
with her 20 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
They'll all come together to celebrate her 90th birthday.
"She's a treasure," said her son, Fred.
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