I’ve been pursing the history of religion in America for almost thirty years. It is high time to offer a blog of that journey.
On our road trips across the U.S., particularly between Alabama and New England, my wife, Martha, and I often “chase churches.” A phrase we coined one memorable day in Petersburg, Virginia, as we spotted one spire after another in the distance and went zipping along the city streets to discover and photograph them.
Of course church buildings rarely move. To say we “chase” them might seem odd. But in the thrill of the hunt, it does seem like you are chasing them. And they do disappear.
Disappeared Churches in D.C.
Much of my attention is focused on Washington, D.C. The Library of Congress has preserved a marvelous 1892 bird’s eye view of Washington by Currier and Ives.
A careful look at the central area of Northwest Washington shows the prominent place of churches. At least twelve identifiable churches are located between Massachusetts Ave. (running horizontally across the center of the frame) and Pennsylvania Ave. (along the bottom).
Of these only four still stand. (Two are at the eastern end of the area, St. Mary’s (Catholic) and Fifth Presbyterian (now housing the Chinese Community Church. Two Episcopal churches are at the western end, Epiphany and Ascension (now Ascension and St. Agnes).) The congregations of two others (New York Avenue Presbyterian and First Congregational) have new buildings on the same site. The rest of the buildings have disappeared and been replaced by other structures or parks.
Still other churches belong in this 1892 view, but were not included by the artist. These include Luther Place Memorial Church and Vermont Avenue Christian Church (now Mt. Olivet Lutheran).
Chasing churches requires a lot of detective work both on the ground and in the archive. I hope you’ll follow my journey.