On Thursday, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African American as archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. For the past fourteen years he has been archbishop of Atlanta. In its report on Gregory’s appointment, the Washington Post noted that while nationally African Americans only make up 3% of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Washington archdiocese they comprise 13%.
As in other denominations in Washington, initially African Americans worshiped as miniorities within white-controlled parishes. The first Catholic church in the capital specifically for African Americans was established by free African American Catholics in 1858. Initially it was named for Blessed Martin de Porres, but it was renamed for St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African doctor of the church in 1873-74.
In downtown Washington, the church’s first location is marked by a handsome metal plaque. This is the only such marker for a vanished church that I can think of in downtown D.C. Pictures of several other destroyed churches buildings appear on the interpretive signs along the many walking trails developed by Cultural Tourism DC. They do not, however, suggest the permanency of this marker.
The Victorian Gothic building north of L Street on 15th St NW was completed in 1876 to designs by Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore architect who divided his career between Catholic churches and buildings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Perhaps his most prominent church is in Savannah, Georgia, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist designed in a French Gothic style.
When St. Augustine’s downtown building was razed in 1947 to make way for a new building for the Washington Post, the parish was merged with St. Paul’s Church, about one mile north on 15th St. at the base of Meridian Hill. The name St. Augustine’s was dropped from use at that time, but revived in 1961 when the parish was renamed St. Paul and St. Augustine. In 1982 the parish name revised again to be St. Augustine in recognition of its rule as a vibrant center of African American Catholic life. It remains so today.
Around the corner from the marker, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still stands on M Street. With stubborn heroism, its congregation has held on its building and remained downtown to exercise its role as the “National Cathedral of African Methodism.” (The building was once named to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Buildings in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). A longtime member of that congregation once told me that they missed their neighbors at St. Augustine’s. At the head of a glass-lined ally, the St. Augustine’s marker is a good reminder of the vanished landscape of nineteenth century Washington.
St. Augustine Catholic Church, 2009, Wikimedia Commons, AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, David R. Bains, 2018.