by Brigid Schulte, The Washington Post

7 February 2011, p. A1

“As a young woman in the 1960s, Sister Cecilia Dwyer came to an isolated Benedictine monastery in western Prince William County to begin her life as a nun.

“Stately pin oaks lined the monastery entrance just off a sleepy country lane called Linton Hall Road that wound through six miles of farms and woods. By day, two cars might pass. At night, the country sky was velvety black and pasted with stars. She and the other sisters lived in almost total silence.

“These days, Sister Cecilia, now prioress of the monastery, has a hard time turning left out of her driveway. In the past decade, the woods and farms of Linton Hall have given way to thousands of new houses, four huge shopping centers, three new megachurches, and, by the end of the year, nine new public schools. Signs proclaiming ‘Acreage for Sale’ and ‘Luxury Homes Coming Soon’ dot Linton Hall Road, now a jammed, four-lane thoroughfare.

” ‘We’ve become completely surrounded,’ Sister Cecilia said the other day, nodding to the housing developments that encircle the monastery. ‘And the lights of the Safeway at night – well, we’re not used to it.’

“To understand what Virginia is becoming, head to Linton Hall, one of the fastest-growing areas of fast-growing Northern Virginia. The community, which seems to have sprung from whole cloth overnight, added 27,000 residents in 10 years, according to census figures released Thursday.

“Many of the newcomers are Hispanics, Asians and African Americans, the groups fueling growth in the new Virginia. While the non-Hispanic white population in Northern Virginia grew 6 percent in the past decade, the Hispanic population jumped 78 percent, the Asian population, 74 percent, and the African American share, 31 percent.

“As a result, the Old Dominion, site of the capital of the Confederacy during the 1860s and a place where some officials encouraged ‘massive resistance’ to integration during the 1960s, is becoming a multicultural mecca.

“Nowhere is that more evident than in Prince William, site of some of the most famous battles of the Civil War and now a majority-minority county.

“In Linton Hall, the diversity is on display at Bristow Elementary, a school built in 1998 that crams 1,200 students who speak 20 languages into an ever-expanding sea of trailers.

“As school was being dismissed Friday, three friends waited down a little wooded path for their children.

“Donna Wilson, 35, who moved into the Kingsbrooke development when it was still a ‘ghost town’ in the late 1990s, is white. Aber Dabbah, 36, who was drawn to the open spaces and affordable houses in 2001, is from Abu Dhabi. And Yolanda Urquhart, 44, who moved from Manassas in 2007 to get her kids into better schools, is black.

“The traffic is a headache, the women agreed. A couple of years ago, the Census Bureau rated Linton Hall No. 1 in the nation for having the longest average one-way commute, at 46.3 minutes.

“But this is the kind of place, they say, where their kids stay out all day playing, coming in only when it’s time for dinner. They feel safe. Their lives revolve around block parties, activities at the Kingsbrooke Clubhouse and pool in the summer, and neighborhood get-togethers in winter.

” ‘One of the reasons we moved here is, you just feel at home,’ Urquhart said.

” ‘I’ve lived in other places where I’ve felt like an alien, the outsider,’ Dabbah said. ‘But here, it’s very diverse. . . . There’s a lot of neighborly love.’

“Dabbah’s son, Zach, a third-grader, agreed. ‘It’s really fun here,’ he said. ‘You can ride your bikes in the street. There’s a basketball court. And I have a million friends.’

“Wilson expressed some dissatisfaction. A wave of foreclosures and owners who couldn’t sell in the recession have changed the character of her once close-knit block. ‘But at this point, I’ve been here so long and my mortgage is so low, where am I going to go?’ she said. ‘Besides, the kids love each other.’

“Schools in the area are 40 percent minority, but poverty rates are relatively low, with 6 to 18 percent of the children qualifying for free and reduced-price meals. That socioeconomic parity, school counselor Robin Vaneman said, has kept racial tensions largely at bay.

“If there are any ill feelings in Linton Hall, it is among longtime residents who live in the sliver of what remains of the ‘rural crescent.’

“Judy Curry, 45, and her daughter, Cassandra, 16, live in an old house on an acre and a half of land. Their home is one of the few, Curry said, that’s not a cookie-cutter house in a fancy development.

“Cassandra grew up fishing with her dad in the pond just out the back door. Curry organized Girl Scout campouts in the woods behind the house. She loved that the handful of neighbors thought of Cassandra as their own granddaughter and that everyone looked after everyone else.

“She doesn’t know any of these new neighbors, all of whom, she said, stick to their isolated developments.

“Linton Hall, said Curry, standing under the neon glare of a new Starbucks, is just not the same.

” ‘I hate it,’ she said. ‘When Cassandra graduates from high school, I’m going to move to the woods in North Carolina.’

” ‘Yeah, we moved out here to get away from everything,’ Cassandra said. ‘Then everything followed us here.’

“Wally Covington, the Prince William supervisor who represents the area, says he understands how disorienting the changes have been for longtime residents. He grew up on a farm just off Linton Hall Road. ‘We would lose dogs if they ran off the farm here’ – they would just disappear in the vast woods, he said.

“Now only two large undeveloped tracts remain, one an old missile-building site and another that was supposed to become a quarry. They aren’t likely to stay undeveloped long.

“The old Atlas Ironworks is now a shopping center, Covington said. Plans are underway for new and wider roads, a new rail line, a freeway interchange and more commercial development.

” ‘We’re working on getting more high-end retail out here, similar to Tysons Corner,’ he said. ‘And white-tablecloth restaurants.’

“At the Benedictine monastery, Sister Cecilia accepts what has happened to Linton Hall. In fact, it was the Benedictine Sisters who triggered the development frenzy when they began selling off pieces of their 1,800-acre parcel to raise money to care for some of the elderly nuns. Back then, the land was worth $3,000 an acre. Now the order owns only 130 acres. And a recent offer came in at more than $200,000 an acre for what’s left.

“The sisters no longer raise corn or beef cattle, as they once did, or run the biggest piggery in Northern Virginia. The best thing they can do for the rapidly growing and fast-paced community, Sister Cecilia said, is preserve the last bits of open space.

“With that in mind, they’ve created a ‘Place of Peace’ with a labyrinth and walking trails for prayer and contemplation. Their once sparsely attended Sunday service is often crowded.

” ‘I kind of like the new neighbors,’ Sister Cecilia said. ‘It used to be so deserted here, I really don’t mind the changes. But I’m one of the few extroverts in the community.’ “