A Prominent Woman’s Influence on the Town of Herndon, Virginia

Mrs. Mary Lee Castleman

Mary Lee Castleman, circa 1854. Photo from Mrs. Elizabeth Tabbott

One early resident of the Town of Herndon, Virginia, who had a significant impact on the Town was Mrs. Mary Lee Castleman. Her strength and tenacity contributed to the establishment of the Town’s first Episcopal Church, the Town’s first boarding school for girls, and Fairfax County’s first lending library.

It was there that Mary presumably met her husband, Robert Allen Castleman, who went to Episcopal High School and also the Virginia Theological Seminary.

Mary and Robert married in 1853. As a Deacon and then a priest, Robert with his growing family in tow performed missions in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Together, the Castlemans had four daughters and a son.

Around 1860, the Castlemans decided to return to Virginia. Mrs. Castleman explained the move in a letter:

“His [Rev. Castleman] mother just died in Virginia and left him six slaves. He cannot conscientiously set them free; for he cannot tell what would become of them. He cannot send them to Liberia; he has not the means. He cannot bring them here [Harrisburg, PA] in the existing stare of feeling on the subject. His conclusion is, he must go back to Virginia, take a country parish and take care of these slaves.”

The years during and immediately after the Civil War were difficult for this large family. Practically destitute, they were loaned a small farm which allowed them to feed their family. Both Mary and her husband sought out teaching jobs. Sadly, in 1865, Rev. Castleman was inexplicably shot and killed by an unknown person while returning home from a neighbor’s house. His obituary noted, “He had no enemy, capable of such a deed; it is supposed he was the victim of an appalling mistake.”

Following this tragedy, Mrs. Castleman moved with her mother and children back to Alexandria, Virginia, and she found work as a teacher. She taught for several years before considering a move to the rural village of Herndon. Rev. John McGill, a minister in charge of small outlying churches, including one in Herndon, St. Timothy’s Mission, befriended her. It was Rev. McGill who influenced Mrs. Castleman to settle in the village of Herndon. Various sources indicated that she moved to Herndon around 1873/1874 along with her mother, Mrs. Lee, and her daughters Mary, Ida, Lucy, and Virginia. Her son, Robert Jr., remained in Alexandria as a boarding student at Episcopal High School.

In 1875 the Town of Herndon was still four years away from being incorporated. Herndon’s fledgling St. Timothy’s Episcopal congregation worshipped in what one former resident described as a former cheese factory.

End notes written in the back of Virginia Castleman’s book, “Reminiscences of An Oldest Inhabitant” said,

The former St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, now the home of the Herndon Masonic Lodge. Photo by Barbara Glakas.

The former St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, now the home of the Herndon Masonic Lodge. Photo by Barbara Glakas.

“St. Timothy’s Mission began in 1868 in an old building at what today is the corner of Lynn and Station Streets. Church records locate it ‘opposite Clark’s mill and next door of Henry’s [Simms] blacksmith shop.’  In 1871 it was relocated on a half-acre lot at the northwest corner of Grace and Vine Streets in a building which formerly housed a cheese making operation. Church records show that services were not held in the Mission after Easter 1880 when St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church was completed at the corner of Grace and Elden.”

The upper part of the cheese making building housed a home school for boys. Mrs. Castleman sought to establish a proper school for young ladies.

Mrs. Castleman organized local women into a society called “The Gleaners” to help the church. They met weekly for 20 years, sewing and selling aprons, sunbonnets, children’s clothes and quilts. They sold these goods and paid for much of the construction and maintenance of St. Timothy’s church and rectory. The new church was built and was consecrated in 1881. That building still stands today and is currently the home of Herndon’s Masonic Lodge.

That same year, Mrs. Castleman bought some land from Ancel St. John, a land owner and former town council member. She contracted for the building of a large two-story frame house. Mrs. Castleman and her four daughters operated the Herndon Seminary for several years in this house, a private school which had formerly been held in the old mission building, prior to moving into the new house.  The seminary was both a boarding school and a day school for young ladies. Boys were allowed to attend up to twelve years old. Mrs. Castleman and her daughters taught a full curriculum including math, history, geography, English, Bible study, music and art. Each daughter either taught different subjects at the school or took responsibility for one of the logistical aspects of the school, such as housekeeping or the seminary’s business affairs. Several materials from the Herndon Seminary can be seen in Herndon’s Train Depot museum.

Mary Castleman’s former home and Seminary, now a private residence. Photo by Barbara Glakas

Mary Castleman’s former home and Seminary, now a private residence. Photo by Barbara Glakas

According to Chuck Mauro’s book, “Herndon, A Town and Its History,” tuition at the seminary was about ten dollars per month for the younger day students, with additional fees for older students. Some students finished their education at the seminary at the age of fourteen or fifteen, while others continued their education into their upper teens and then went on to college. Girls basketball was the only organized sport conducted at the seminary.

Mrs. Castleman died at the seminary in 1891 and was buried in Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria. Her daughters carried on her spirit of purpose and interest in education. The Herndon Seminary was the location of the first meeting of the Study Club, which first met in 1889. They decided to form for the purpose of “the mutual improvement of its members in literature, art, science, and the vital interests of the day.” The eleven ladies – the Castleman daughters and several other local women – collected forty books for their research. They decided to meet every two weeks and they named their group The Fortnightly Club.

By 1900 they had collected more than a thousand books. Mrs. Castleman’s daughter, Virginia, took a library science course at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia and then suggested they start a public library for the people of Herndon. This was the genesis of the Fortnightly Library, the first lending library in Fairfax County, Virginia.

The Castlemans lived in the house for several years. Failing health of one of the daughters made it necessary, in the mid 1920’s, to arrange for a dwelling separate from the school. It was at this time that a six room bungalow house was built next door.

The Seminary came to a close in 1926. All the Castleman daughters passed away between the years 1926 and 1940 and are all buried in Chestnut Grove Cemetery in Herndon.

In a tribute to their friend, The Gleaners Society remembered Mrs. Mary Lee Castleman as someone with, “careful forethought, strong personality, and devoted self-sacrifice,” with a “conscientious, systematic and liberal consecration of her means to her Master’s service.

About Barbara Glakas
BARBARA GLAKAS is a retired teacher and a native of Fairfax County, Virginia. She is a member of the Herndon Historical Society and writes stories about Herndon history. She lives in Herndon, Virginia.
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