On November 25, 1893, Thomas Fortune Ryan, a railroad baron and the President of the Phelps-Dodge Copper Mines in Arizona, and his wife Ida M. Ryan purchased, 0.48 acres of land in Hot Springs, Virginia for the sum of $5.00 for the purpose of building a Catholic church. Records indicate that the Ryan’s lived at Ryan Ridge in Mitchelltown, believed to be the present-day Maple Ridge Farm. The establishment of a Catholic church gave Catholics in the area – whether visiting, living in Bath County or working at the Homestead – the opportunity to attend Mass. The Shrine of the Sacred Heart was dedicated and opened on August 8, 1894. Ryan took on the responsibility of providing a priest and supporting the Shrine until his death. The Shrine was officially donated to the Bishop of the Diocese of Richmond in 1922. At that time, Father Richard Washington, a descendent of George Washington, became the first Pastor of the Shrine at the Sacred Heart.
Originally, a privately-owned church, which could only be built with the permission of a bishop, was called a Shrine. Shrines were usually a place of pilgrimage. Today, along with serving local families, the Shrine of the Sacred Heart welcomes visiting Catholics to the area. Approximately 3000 visitors’ worship at the Shrine each year.
Although Catholics have always been a minority in Virginia, their roots in the commonwealth extend back four hundred years. A group of Spanish Jesuits planted the seeds of Christian faith near present-day Williamsburg but were soon killed by local inhabitants (1570–1571). Their martyrdom foreshadowed the struggles of the Catholic Church in this territory. In the following centuries, the Church grew slowly amid religious and secular hostility, geographic isolation, economic deprivation, and a chronic lack of priests.
The first organized Catholic communities in Virginia took shape around 1794. At St. Patrick’s in Norfolk, a schism or formal division among believers arose over the question of whether lay persons could own Church property and appoint their own pastors (ca. 1794–1821). In an effort to heal the rift, Pope Pius VII established the Diocese of Richmond on July 11, 1820. Formed from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Richmond became seventh diocese in the United States.