D.C.’s New Archbishop and One of Its Historic African American Churches

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.

Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 15th St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

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.

St. Augustine Catholic Church, Washignton, D.C. 1899? From collection of photographs assembled for Paris Exposition of 1900, Library of Congress
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2001705861/

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.


Marker commemorating former site of St. Augustine Catholic Church near 1152 M St NW, Washington, DC 20005 Photo: David R. Bains, November 2018

St. Augustine Catholic Church, 2009, Wikimedia Commons, AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, David R. Bains, 2018.

Metro D.C.’s Other Peace Cross

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.

Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, 2009.
Ben Jacobson (Kranar Drogin) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.

On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.

Peace Cross, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., 2007
Photo: David R. Bains

The inscription on the cathedral Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”

While the cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898,” its link to the end of the war makes it one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. It probably influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross
seven miles to the east.

[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]

National Prayer Breakfast Site was Almost a Church

For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.

In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.

Aerial view of "Oak Lawn," Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton Hotel.

Aerial view of “Oak Lawn,” Washington, D.C., site of Washington Hilton hotel. Photographed between 1909 and 1932. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/97505334/

Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.

National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.

Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.

Proposal for National Presbyterian Church c. 1955, Adams & Woodbridge, Mills, Petticord, & Mills, Architects. Collection of National Presbyterian Church.

The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.

The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.

Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.

With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.

President’s Wall – A Fence with an Open Gate

Walking along Highland Avenue in Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday I saw this sign.

It is located in front of the parking lot of Temple Beth-el. The “wall” is actually a brick and iron fence installed as part of an effort to beautify the synagogue’s street front. There are no gates on the driveways that lead across into the parking lot and the synagogue’s main week-day entrance.

It will be interesting to see how the wall that President Trump may eventually claim to have built compares to that of this synagogue president.

Spaces that Shape: Architecture for Worship

In the summer of 2017, the Center for Worship and the Arts at Samford University produced a nine-minute video on understanding church architecture. It was used in Animate, their week-long summer program for teenagers and others. I provided the narration. I’ll be referring to it in a talk at a All Saints’ Episcopal Church this week, so I’m sharing it here for easy access. I hope you find it helpful.

They produced a teaching activity handout based on my notes. If you are interested, let me know, and I’ll see if we can track down a copy.