This is the fifth in a series of articles offering readers glimpses into the diocese’s history via entertaining and enlightening vignettes focusing on important, though little-known, events.

Molly Pyle, Special to the Catholic Virginian

Among other definitions, a diocese refers to a specific geography. The Diocese of Richmond encompasses five diverse regions: Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, Blue Ridge, Piedmont, and Coastal Plain. Inspection of this natural inheritance unveils underlying connections between these regions — a shared geological history.

Significantly, the diocese’s geology was formed over a billion years ago. At various points, large plates at the Earth’s core collided, causing ruptures along vast distances — uplifting mountain ranges. Around 300 million years ago, the Appalachian “orogeny” (a mountain-producing event) created the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountain ranges. The Blue Ridge was formed from separate orogenic events. The Piedmont and Coastal Plain geologic provinces evolved as erosion caused by bitter cold, ice, and violent rains sent rocky debris in torrential streams across the land to the sea, away from the western mountains.

The Diocese of Richmond as it looked in 1850. (Map/Diocese of Richmond Archives)

Another distinctive feature of the diocese’s geography is its fall line, the north-south boundary separating the Piedmont’s ancient hard bedrock and the Coastal Plain’s younger, soft sediment. At points along this transitional zone water flowing over different hard and soft rock surfaces produce great falls.

In addition to its natural beauty, Virginia’s varied geography has created certain physical realities to which generations of Virginians have creatively adapted. It posed challenges for transportation, familiar to the diocese’s early bishops. Deacon Ed Hanzlik of Sacred Heart Parish, New Bohemia, shared the following anecdote concerning Bishop Augustine Van de Vyver (1889-1911):

En route in his Ford Model T to Sacred Heart Church, New Bohemia (outside Petersburg), the bishop’s car slid off a then-dirt road, getting stuck in mud. Czech farmer-parishioners dug him out – and later donated their time and tractors to construct Virginia’s first gravel highway.

Similarly, Virginia’s rivers, while sources of wealth, have posed their own difficulties, for they traverse irregular routes, changing direction often, and contain areas of shallow water, encumbering transportation. Yet, those limitations have given rise to innovations.

To utilize the region’s rivers for trade, early tobacco plantation owners developed the bateau, a flat-bottomed boat capable of transporting tons of cargo. Today, “rivermen” participate in an annual bateau festival, an eight-day journey along the James.

Imagine the riverman’s sense of freedom, poling and rowing under his own steam, figuring out how to navigate through low water.

Diocesan priests, Father Christian and Father Gregory Kandt, who is a native of Mount Vernon, have been good sources for understanding diocesan geography and traditions. Notably, for both, a desire to serve in their native Virginia was an important factor in their respective vocational discernments.

They have drawn attention to micro-regions within Virginia’s geologic provinces. Fr. Gregory Kandt, who earned his undergraduate degree at James Madison University, Harrisonburg, explained that the Valley is actually comprised of three separate systems: Harrisonburg, Waynesboro, and Staunton form the Shenandoah Valley; Roanoke and Salem constitute the Roanoke Valley; and Radford and Blacksburg lie in the New River Valley.

Father Christian, reflecting on his native Lynchburg, proposed that geography has had a strong  impact on thinking and behavior in the Piedmont. Lynchburg is surrounded by countryside and hamlets; there is no suburban or metropolitan area. Its inhabitants feel isolated from the region’s other towns.

Lynchburg and Charlottesville have little sense of regional solidarity. As a consequence of geography, Father Christian observed, natives of the Piedmont incline strongly to independent thought and action, pursuing individual rather than common interests.

Lynchburg, founded by John Lynch in 1757 as a lucrative ferry business on the James River, prospered as tobacco farmers throughout the Piedmont, from North Carolina to northern Virginia, shipped their product from Lynchburg because of the James River and Kanawha Canal.

Virginians generally have valued their traditions. For example, Virginians’ devotion to duty and long-established tradition of military service are expressed in the Commonwealth of Virginia’s official state seal (adopted in 1776), which features Virtue, spear in hand and with her foot on prostrate Tyranny, with the state’s motto: Sic semper tyrannis (“Thus always to tyrants”).


During World War II, Bedford (originally called Liberty) suffered, proportionally, the greatest losses nationally during the Allied invasion at Normandy Beach — “D-Day,” June 6, 1944. The town of some 3,000 inhabitants sent 30 young men into active duty. Nineteen were killed on D-Day, and four died during a later stage of the Normandy campaign. In honor of the town’s sacrifice, President George W. Bush located the National D-Day Memorial, which he dedicated on June 6, 2001, in Bedford.

Newcomers bring different values, shaped by many factors, not least geography. In a recent conversation, Bishop Barry M. Knestout reflected on the cultural diversity of the Richmond Diocese, developing an interesting analogy. He referred to the color wheel, with its contrasting colors, creating dazzling beauty. The eye is naturally drawn to points of contrast. In an analogous way, he suggested, when people of different backgrounds interact they may attend particularly to differences; however, over time, as relationships develop, they may learn, leading to personal transformations — a theme to be explored in the diocesan history.