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.
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.
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 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.
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.