George Washington’s church to remove memorial plaque Lee also targeted at Virginia site
George Washington was one of the founding members of Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, buying pew No. 5 when the church opened in 1773 and attending for more than two decades whenever he rode north from Mount Vernon to do business in town.
The church announced it was pulling down a memorial plaque to its onetime vestryman and the country’s first president, saying he and another famous parishioner, Robert E. Lee, have become so controversial that they are chasing away would-be parishioners.
While acknowledging “friction” over the decision, the church’s leadership said both plaques, which are attached to the front wall on either side of the altar, are relics of another era and have no business in a church that proclaims its motto as “All are welcome — no exceptions.”
“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome. Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques,” the church leaders said in a letter to the congregation.
The backlash was swift, with the church’s Facebook page turning into a battleground. Some supporters praised the church for a “courageous” stand, while critics compared leaders at the Episcopal church leaders to the Taliban or the Islamic State.
Church leaders said they debated for a long time, and the Rev. Noelle YorkSimmons, the rector, said in an email to The Washington Times that the vote by the vestry was unanimous. The plaques will come down by next summer, when leadership determines another place for them.
For now, the Lee memorial, about the size of a grave marker, stands to the right of the altar, reading in gold lettering, “In Memory of Robert Edward Lee.” The Washington plaque to the left says: “In memory of George Washington.”
They were erected in 1870, just months after Lee’s death, and were a bit of a sensation at the time, earning mentions in newspapers from Massachusetts to San Francisco. The accounts said the memorials were paid for by subscription of citizens of Alexandria.
The church also has small metal markers on the Washington family pew and at the location where Lee was confirmed, but there is no other information or comment posted on the two men’s lives in the church.
Lack of other details was part of the problem for leaders, who said the memorials didn’t explain the two famous parishioners’ memorial presence.
“Because the sanctuary is a worship space, not a museum, there is no appropriate way to inform visitors about the history of the plaques or to provide additional context except for the in-person tours provided by our docents,” the church leaders said.
It’s not clear that the church could divorce itself from Washington even if it wanted to. The website touts itself as “a church where George Washington worshipped” and displays a picture of its famous patron.
Washington bought pew No. 5 when the church opened in 1773. He was a vestryman and contributed to the church throughout his life, according to the Washington Papers project. His family considered the church important enough to him that it donated one of his Bibles after his death.
Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia, an important place of worship to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, plans to remove memorial plaques to the historically significant men.