One of the oldest sites in Washington, D.C., designated for a church is located just a block north of Nationals Park. Since 1903, St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, a Romanesque Revival building designed by architects W. F. Wagner & Brothers, has stood at the corner of South Capitol and M Streets SE. For the past six years it has held a special “Nats Mass” before Sunday games so that baseball fans can attend church before going to the game. Today’s mass will be at 6:30 p.m. With the World Series now tied at 2-2, I’m sure many of the faithful will be praying for the Nats to craft a win and not let the Astros sweep the three D.C. games of this World Series.
Through much of the nineteenth century, the block in which St. Vincent de Paul now stands was empty and known as Cathedral Square. In 1801, early Washington landowner Daniel Carroll of Duddington offered this whole city block for D.C.’s Catholic cathedral. This was one of several efforts by Duddington to encourage development in Carrollsburg, the village south of the Capitol that his family had established. Sitting on a rise between Capitol Hill and the Anacostia River along South Capitol Street, it was an ideal location for a civic building.
But the commercial and religious center of Washington grew not between the Capitol and the river, but to the north and west, between the Capitol and the White House. The city’s oldest Catholic parish, St. Patrick’s, was located in the middle of this neighborhood and functioned as the city’s unofficial cathedral until St. Matthew’s, northwest of the White House, was designated as the seat of the newly created Archdiocese of Washington in 1939.
The opening of Nationals Park in 2008 has brought new prominence to Southeast Washington. In additional to baseball games, in its first season it hosted a mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI. While St. Vincent de Paul was not visited by Pope Benedict, nor Pope Francis in 2015, the Nats Mass has helped to connect this urban parish with suburban Catholics and given the church new prominence which has aided its restoration efforts. Julie Bourbon described the mass in a 2017 article for the National Catholic Reporter
“It was great,” says Maria Bailey, who, with her husband Mike and five children, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was attending the Nats Mass for the first time. Her 11-year-old son was one of the altar servers [recruited by Fr. Andrew Gonzalo immediately before the service].
The Baileys chat with Gonzalo for a bit after Mass, saying they hope to come back next season, then they all head to the parking lot, where the Knights of Columbus grill hot dogs to sell with bottled water at far less than stadium prices.
“It was very nice, very welcoming,” says Daughters of Charity Sr. Mary Bader, chief executive officer of St. Ann’s Center for Children, Youth and Family in nearby Hyattsville, Maryland. “It had quite a bit of charm to it.”
Bader, along with two other Daughters of Charity — all baseball fans — was enlisted just before Communion to serve as Eucharistic ministers. It was their first time to the Mass they’d been hearing about. Gonzalo’s homily, she says, “was very simple, to the point, and practical.”
As baseball wraps up and the Nats head to the post-season, the days of 100-plus losses are over. Like the team, the fortunes of the parish, which was founded by the Josephites in 1903 but has since reverted to the Archdiocese of Washington, have waxed and waned with the times.
Gonzalo notes that the neighborhood’s transient residents, many living in pricey apartments, are unlikely to become permanent parishioners. “But that is not an excuse not to evangelize them. We do try to reach out. That’s why we created this Mass,” he says, giving credit to his predecessor for coming up with the idea.
“That is what we can offer, evangelization. I think this is it,” he says, drawing a parallel between his experience in the Congo and what he’s trying to do at St. Vincent de Paul. “We go to where the people are and we meet them there.” Read the whole article here
In addition to its own Sunday Roman-rite masses, the church also hosts the Sunday morning services of Kidane-Mehret Ge’ez Rite Ethiopian Catholic Church as it raises funds to erect its own building in suburban Maryland. (Kurzius 2019). The Jospehites who founded the parish are an order that seeks to serve African Americans. As a diocesan parish in a rapidly redeveloping neighborhood, the church under Fr. Gonzalo’s leadership continues to seek new ways of mission. Hopefully, Nats fans who attend tonight’s mass will be able to celebrate a world championship next week.
Bourbon, Julie. 2017. “‘Nats Mass’ Packs the Pews (and Then the Stands).” National Catholic Reporter. September 14, 2017. https://www.ncronline.org/news/parish/nats-mass-packs-pews-and-then-stands.
Kurzius, Rachel. 2019. “At Nats Mass, Worshippers Can Literally Pray For The Home Team.” DCist. April 1, 2019. https://dcist.com/story/19/04/01/at-nats-mass-worshippers-can-literally-pray-for-the-home-team/.
MacGregor, Morris J. 1994. A parish for the federal city: St. Patrick’s in Washington, 1794-1994. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press.