Parish History

History of St. Mary the Mother of God Parish

St. Mary’s Catholic Church is one of the oldest parishes in southwest Virginia. In fact, for a long time, it was the only Catholic parish between Lynchburg, Virginia and Knoxville, Tennessee. The state of Virginia became a separate diocese in December 1840 and the Rev. R.V. Whelan was named bishop. He presided over the diocese from Richmond. His first official act was to appeal to the Church in Europe for aid. He received a good response, and Wytheville was one of the mission churches that benefited. In 1842, Bishop Whelan came to Wytheville for the first time and found 14 Catholics. He founded a mission and baptized several people.

In 1842, Bishop Whelan returned and on August 10, 1842 he blessed the new church, which was dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. The small congregation had built a wooden structure on the cemetery grounds on Peppers Ferry Road. The land for the church had been donated by Capt. John P. Mathews and his wife, Malvina Smith. Shortly after making their donation, they both converted to the Catholic faith.

Father Edward Fox became the first pastor of the church in 1844. In 1846, he was transferred to Lynchburg, but he continued to serve St. Mary’s, traveling 150 miles by stagecoach! He served until his death in 1850 bringing many new converts to the church. Rev. Thomas Mulvey replaced Father Fox in Lynchburg, and attended to the needs of St. Mary’s until 1851.

In 1850, the Western part of Virginia became part of the diocese of Huntington, WV and Rev. Whelan was named to head this new diocese. Wytheville became the center of Catholic activity in western Virginia, serving as a base for the establishment of many mission churches in Appalachia.