Historically black churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington

[Washington Window] “The life of a congregation grows out if its foundation,” said the Rev. Carleton Hayden to a group of about 50 breakfasting in Calvary, D.C.’s parish hall on a recent Saturday. “So it’s important to understand when a congregation was founded.”

Cue the Soul Pilgrimage Tour, a closer look at four historically black congregations in the Diocese of Washington organized by the Episcopal Women and Girls of Calvary and led by Hayden, a Howard University history professor and retired priest of the diocese.

The first stop on the day-trip, themed “understanding our past and shaping our future” and more than two years in the planning, was St. Mary’s, Foggy Bottom – the oldest African American church in the diocese.

As the bus crossed town, Hayden explained that before the Civil War, there were no black Episcopal churches; just slave chapels or galleries in white churches. But “after the war, there was a tremendous push to have organizations where blacks have input,” he said. “St. Mary’s rose out of that.”

During this era of emancipation, the evangelism strategy of the Episcopal Church was to provide schools and hospitals to draw people into the life of the church, Hayden said. The idea was “as they are drawn in, we can teach them, and they will become baptized and convert.”

This historic focus on education fostered leaders like Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall, but “also has been the bane of our life,” he said. “Because the image that we have in the rest of the black community is that we are the church of the elite.”

St. Mary’s, Foggy Bottom
St. Mary’s (which was originally named St. Barnabas’ and changed its name after several months for reasons unknown) began its life as a congregation in June 1867.

Church members met in a former wooden Union Army Chapel, transported from Kalorama Hospital to land in Foggy Bottom donated by a parishioner from St. John’s, Lafayette Square. Epiphany, D.C. also offered financial and clerical support to the fledgling congregation.

“This was a place where you could worship without discrimination,” said present-day parishioner Lionel Gloster, welcoming the group into the newly-restored nave. “Today the church is very diverse – still a place where you can worship without discrimination.”

In 1882 a parish hall and school were built, and in 1887 the red-brick church, designed by architect James Renwick, of Smithsonian Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral fame, and costing just $15,000, was completed.
Although inexpensive by today’s standards, the money was a lot for the new congregation to raise, architect and parishioner Mark Fetterman said, far exceeding the original budget of $6,000.

The building’s simple design emulated the English churches being built by the Ecclesiological Society at that time, he said, designed to keep costs down and refocus attention on the spiritual.

“All the important decoration is in the chancel,” he said, including the newly restored gold stenciled paintwork and a triptych window over the altar that was created in France.

“The parishioners worked very hard and diligently to make these gifts possible for the church,” said parishioner and Howard University Provost Richard Allyn English, noting that the church’s stained glass windows are all memorials.

The triptych window also honors the ethnicity of the church founders, Hayden explained, pointing out that the central panel shows St. Simon of Cyrene bearing the cross of Christ.

“The fact that Simon is an African is significant,” he said, pointing out the color of his skin, which has been faithfully portrayed. “This tribute to racial origin is quite noticeable and one of the outstanding features of this window.”

During his episcopacy, Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee suggested that the church be named for St. Simon, Hayden said, but church members rejected the idea.

Simon was a foreigner who was compelled to carry the cross, he said. “My guess is that because of those connotations they really did not want that. They wanted a name that would associate them with the Episcopal Church in the broadest way.”

To the left of Simon is a panel depicting St. Trophina, in memory of Gertrude Trophina Willis, St. Mary’s first deaconess, and to the right is a panel of Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (North Africa), given by parishioners in memory of Abraham Lincoln.

Willis, a sickly Englishwoman who worked selflessly in the church’s House of Mercy died young and is buried in the St. Paul’s, Rock Creek Cemetery, Hayden said. He noted that many whites who ministered to blacks in those days were Europeans who had not been socialized in the United States.

The church operated as a mission of St. John’s until it became a parish in 1920. But before this, in 1873, the burgeoning congregation had divided, with about half the members joining the Rev. Alexander Crummell to found St. Luke’s, D.C.

St. Luke’s, D.C.
St. Luke’s was the first independent black congregation in the diocese, and Crummell was its first rector, said the Rev. Virginia Brown Nolan, the eighth and current rector, welcoming the group to her church.

(In one of history’s little quirks, Nolan’s father, the Rev. Dillard H. Brown, served as the fifth rector of St. Luke’s and left to become the first missionary bishop to Liberia, she said, pointing out that Crummell came to this diocese after serving as a missionary in Liberia.)

Dr. Crummell, a highly regarded scholar who was born free in New York City, ordained by the Bishop of Delaware after being refused ordination by the Bishop of New York, educated at Cambridge, England and served as a missionary in Liberia before returning to New York to become rector of St. Philip’s, was an impressive and influential figure.

Initially called to serve at St. Mary’s, Crummell found it necessary to build a new church to cope with the huge influx of worshippers to that congregation. His vision was that St. Luke’s would also become a community center, offering a clinic and school, Nolan said.

St. Luke’s was established as a separate congregation – a church without parish bounds – Nolan said, explaining that St. Luke’s eventually petitioned for and received about two square blocks to call its own. But some people in the congregation viewed the word separate a little differently, she said, leading to historic tensions with the diocese around issues of authority.

These were not eased by Bishop Angus Dun, who drew ire when he told church leaders that St. Luke’s plans to build an undercroft were “too ambitious for a black congregation,” Nolan said, to a chorus of groans. “That feeling did not go away.”

Tensions emerged more recently when in 1999 some members left when Nolan, the church’s first female priest, was called as rector. But, she said, “it’s important for us to look at both the strengths and weaknesses of our congregations in order to grow and move forward.”

“In the church we operate so much from our emotions that sometimes we can’t see. We have to turn our focus on the people who need good news but have not heard it yet. We need to really focus on what is important, and community is important.”

At its peak in the 1940s and 50s, St. Luke’s boasted about 1,500 members, but demographics have changed dramatically, and the once predominantly black neighborhood is now home to a younger, wealthier, whiter and more transient population.

“I think all of us, if we’re going to survive another 150 years, we’re going to have to look at how we’re going to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to our surrounding community,” Nolan said.

Calvary, D.C.
Changing demographics also played a part in the establishment of Calvary, D.C. – the third church on the tour – where lunch was served and participants watched a televised 1995 interview with the late Rev. James O. West as they ate.

Established as an Episcopal mission in 1901 by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, Calvary’s first building was a store-front at 1303 11th Street NE. Calvary Mission, or “Little Calvary,” quickly outgrew this site, and in 1909 purchased a lot at the corner of 11th and G Streets NE.

In the 1940s Calvary came into its own. It obtained parish status at the 1941 Diocesan Convention and became a self-supporting congregation. That same year West was called as rector. Under his almost 50 years of leadership, the church flourished. Many outreach programs were started, and church membership more than doubled.

During this era, as demographics shifted and whites moved out to the Maryland suburbs, membership dwindled at the nearby Chapel of the Good Shepherd, a white congregation at 6th and I Streets NE. At the 1949 Diocesan Convention, Bishop Angus Dun proposed that the diocese transfer Good Shepherd’s building to Calvary.

“A miracle took place,” said longtime Calvary member and tour organizer Rita Scott. “The hand of God had opened the door to that wonderful church.” The church quickly raised the $30,000 needed to renovate the building and the second miracle, Scott said, was that Calvary was able to install all of its original stained glass windows in its new location.

The area was hard-hit by the riots following the April 4, 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Calvary remained undamaged, and responded to the growing need in the area by opening a gym and a hospitality house, among other ministries.

“Whenever I go out in the neighborhood in my dog collar, the older people ask me, ‘When are you going to open the gym again?’” the Rev. Prince Decker, Calvary’s current interim rector said.

“This area is again in transition – it’s becoming more white,” he noted. “Almost every home that is being sold in the neighborhood now is being bought by whites.”

As the neighborhood changes, churches like Calvary need to find new ways to share the good news of the Gospel, Hayden said. “It is my intense prayer that God will show us what to do and give us the means to do what he wants us to do.”

St. George’s, D.C.
From Calvary, the group traveled to the last church that was founded as a black congregation in the diocese – St. George’s, D.C.

St. George’s held its first organizational meeting in Sally Perry’s living room on Oct. 29, 1929 – the day of the Stock Market Crash that triggered the Great Depression.

“So St. George’s got started on Black Friday – no pun intended,” said the Rev. Vincent Harris, the church’s fourth and current rector.

The core group of founders had migrated to the area from Charlotte, N.C., and although there was already an Episcopal Church in the neighborhood, worship was segregated at that time.

“The closest church you could go to from here was St. Luke’s on 15th Street,” Harris said. “It’s a pretty good walk, eh? So Sally Perry and a group of her friends went to the Bishop (James E. Freeman) and said: We want an Episcopal Church in the neighborhood.”

Around this time the diocese closed St. George’s, Tenleytown and St. John’s, Georgetown (colored chapels started by St. Alban’s) and sent the worshippers across town to the new church – creating the very same problem Perry’s group had been trying to solve.

In 1934, for $15,000, the diocese transferred the building of the neighboring white congregation – Church of the Advent – to St. George’s, and in 1952 the church became a separate (self-supporting) congregation.

“It was told to the people who were starting this new congregation that if they took this name (St. George’s) there would be certain benefits,” Harris chuckled. “Now we still haven’t figured out what those are.”

First appeared in Washington Window, Vol. 78, No.8, Nov-Dec 2009 as

Soul Pilgrimage Tour

A closer look at the diocese’s historically black congregations