Catholic Church founded by Irish Immigrants in rural Virginia No Longer Stands

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church | Wythe County, VA | c. 1875

Starting in the 1760s, settlers of Irish descent started to migrate down the Shenandoah Valley to an area now known as the Virginia Highlands. They were drawn to the remoteness of the area and slowly started establishing communities amongst the handful of early families who arrived. At that time, this area sat in Wythe County, but in 1793, a new county was formed within the former Wythe County boundaries called Grayson County.

As time went on, more immigrants came to the area to work. They were largely employed in the mines and iron furnaces that came to dot the landscape in Grayson County before the Civil War and through the iron boom of the late 1800s.

One of the most active furnaces in the county before the Civil War and directly after was the Speedwell Furnace, located on Cripple Creek near Dry Run which was owned by the Williams Family in Speedwell, Virginia.

Around 1840, a great influx of Catholic settlers came to the area known as Speedwell (or Speedville in some records), and that same year, the first Catholic Church was formed here on Dry Run.

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In the early days, they met in the homes of members until a small wooden structure was erected near here for them to meet. During the Civil War, the church halted services, but in the early 1870s, a parcel of land was donated for a new building and cemetery by Daniel Long and his wife, Ellen Murphy Long.

In 1872, the first burial was recorded here and in 1875, the structure you standing today was erected under the supervision of Father Edward Jenkins.

By the early 1940s, the congregation had significantly dwindled as new generations of Virginia’s moved away to fight new wars and to look for better job opportunities and in 1943, the church had held its last service.

In 1975, the deed was changed to a new diocese that would close the church for good, although it was used for some time after that for funerals and occasional reunions.

In all of its years, the church has hardly been modified, and according to a 2014 building survey, it ws still in remarkable condition due to high-quality materials and excellent construction techniques.

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It also stands atop a substantial stone foundation that supports the building while also wicking ground moisture that would otherwise threaten the wooden structure. The survey noted that modest structure is simple both inside and out, especially when compared to other Catholic churches from the era, representing the social class and relative poverty that these rural workers lived in.

The Graveyard

The picturesque burial ground that surrounds the church has burials dating back to 1872 and includes 83 interments, although some oral history indicates that there were earlier unmarked burials.

According to the Catholic tradition, a separate portion of the cemetery is reserved for unbaptized infants. As most of the settlers to this area were Irish immigrants, you will find that most of the surnames buried here are of Irish origin. 

As I researched the stories of the people buried here, I was struck by the number of deaths in the 1910s from Spanish Flu, and later, in the 1930s when Typhoid Fever claimed the lives of many young community members, including one 21-year-old woman who had just left to train to be a nurse to the infirmed.

But perhaps one of the more interesting burials here are those of Joshua J. Percival and his wife, Sarah E. Madison Percival. The Percival’s were Innkeepers in Speedwell, but Joshua was also an iron manufacturer, which would explain the ornate iron fence around his and his wife’s graves- the only iron fence in the cemetery.

2022 UPDATE

In January of 2022, the Diocese of Richmond made the decision to dismantle the church as they deemed it too unsafe to be restored. A sad ending for a historic church but I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories and photos I was able to capture before it was taken down.

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St. Patrick’s Catholic Through the Seasons


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23 thoughts on “Catholic Church founded by Irish Immigrants in rural Virginia No Longer Stands”

  1. There are many cemeteries in real SC on just a short walk from my house it was either a Baptist or Methodist church from the 1700 till the approx the early 1900’s there was also a one room school house that my great grand aunt taught in the address is not but a short walk from my home infact the cemetery borders my mother and aunt’s property it is not far off highway 72E in Whitmire SC I hate I am not able to donate to such a good organization such as this but I am on disability as is most of my hometown is but a wide spot in the road there is little to almost no jobs and those of us here have no choice but to live here and I am indeed as stuck here as the forgotten South thank you for your presevation of some of the most glorious buildings even if some of those builds are plain they have much history

    1. I appreciate these “Forgotten Places” also.
      May I ask why, as you mention, so much of your town is on disability?
      I would do are for preservation myself, if I could. Maybe someday.
      Take Care

  2. Constance S Greenwell

    Love this story. Thank you. Sounds like some of my relatives who were indentured servants to Lord Baltimore’s colony development on the Delmarva penninsula- leaving the coal mines of Durham County UK.

  3. So very interesting! Irish newcomers in the 1840s would likely have been escaping the Potato Famine. Lovely little ‘forgotten’ church! Thank you for researching it and the cemetery.

  4. Very good story and interesting church.I have never seen a wooden frame Catholic church.Most of the Catholic churches that I have seen are in town and bigger structures.

    1. Many old Catholic Churches were wooden. My mother’s home church looks a lot like that. It’s still an active congregation, and the building was rebuilt after a fire in the 40s or 50s.
      I have relatives buried there inside the dedicated area and in the Protestant section outside.
      I wonder if this church had a section for Catholics and a section for those who were not.

  5. The term Scotch Irish is considered offensive in the Scots Irish community that is educated about their heritage. It’s only Scotch if you drink it.

  6. One little typo mistake of “Scotch” by the author was duly noted. Hardly anything to be offended with since it was obviously a typo. We are still considered Scots-Irish regardless of our education level.

  7. My husband’s family, O’Donnells, were founding members of Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church. They are buried across from the Perceval graves. I have been trying for years to locate the area/land which they owned. It is great to see someone take an interest in the store of the church. Thank you for researching and writing about the Irish of Speedwell Virginia.

  8. Is the cemetery still there? Where exactly is it located? Would love to see it even with the church being gone it is still interesting to me. I have always been interested in history, I grew up in NYC but live in Virginia and am looking to find different places in Virginia to visit.

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