By Teresa B. Lachin, Ph.D.
It’s hard to imagine the crossroads of Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike without the imposing white dome of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Planted squarely adjacent to its dainty Gothic predecessor—the 1817 Chapel of Our Lady, St. Mary’s Catholic Church was completed in 1967 and quickly became a new home for parishioners and a modernist Rockville landmark. Then as now, it dominates its site visually and architecturally, encircled with a series of soaring parabolic arches and a towering steeple. Despite its familiar presence, St. Mary’s still manages to command attention with its space-age profile and dramatic starkness. It stands in bold relief to other buildings on the site, St. Mary’s School (1951) and Rectory (1967). One of Rockville’s most innovative architectural structures, St. Mary’s eloquently expresses the City’s dramatic post-World War II growth and the vision, energy, and dedication of its parishioners.
Established in 1813, St. Mary’s is one of the oldest parishes in Montgomery County. Its picturesque vernacular Gothic church was altered and enlarged throughout the 19th-early 20th century, but by the 1950s, the small church was inadequate to meet the needs of a burgeoning family-oriented population boom. Like other congregations in the area, St. Mary’s launched a building campaign to construct a spacious modern church. Under the auspices of the Washington Archdiocese, committees were organized to raise $680,000 in construction funds, adopting the slogan, “The Cost is Not in Building, But in Failing to Build.” The architectural firm of Johnson and Boutin designed the new St. Mary’s in accordance with the liturgical guidelines of the Second Vatican Council. Under the supervision of construction manager Thomas Yoder, a Rockville resident and St. Mary’s parishioner, the immense domed church took shape, supported by a 12-sided masonry base and illuminated by 8 parabolic arches with stained glass windows decorated with scenes from the life of Mary, the parish namesake and patron saint. Installation of the steel spire completed the aerodynamic design.
The use of modern materials and construction technology provided an open unobstructed interior space within the central plan church. In accordance with modern Church guidelines, the altar faced the congregation and was designed to bring parishioners together “as a family … as close to the altar of sacrifice as possible and with equal views of the tabernacle.” Original plans called for a Baptistery connecting the new and old St. Mary’s churches, but this was abandoned as too expensive. When the Archdiocese announced plans to demolish the old church, parishioners and Rockville residents waged a protest campaign, drawing support from Washington Post architectural critic Wolf von Eckardt who lamented the potential loss of the City’s “historic legacy.” Public opinion prevailed and the old church, renamed Chapel of Our Lady, was listed in the National Register and designated a Millennium Church by the Archdiocese—today a local landmark and one of Rockville’s first historic preservation projects. Like other mid-century churches in our City, St. Mary’s is an enduring and eloquent reminder of Rockville’s recent past, an era that embraced the optimism, vision, and architectural spirit of the times.