St. Mary's Church
St. Mary’s Chapel for Colored People maintains a special significance in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood as the first African American Episcopalian church in Washington, DC. Adjacent to the inhabited alley of St. Mary’s Court, the church influenced community life in Foggy Bottom throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, questions about race, equality, and segregation plagued the nation and its capital. In 1865, a group of African American parishioners from the Church of the Epiphany left their interracial congregation to form a new, exclusively Black church free from the discriminatory practices they faced at Epiphany (Johnston, 1993, 59). The original building for St. Mary’s was previously a chapel for the Union Army at the Kalorama Hospital before it was dismantled and rebuilt on the corner of 23rd and H St [SEE FIG. 1] (Grimmett, 2009, 157). The modest, white wooden structure had been the first Episcopalian church to serve D.C [SEE FIG. 1]. It was initially called St. Barnabas’ Mission, then shortly after renamed St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (St. Mary’s Episcopal Church: 125 and Thriving, 1992).
Although the St. Mary’s congregation was exclusively African American, the Chapel itself was placed under the supervision of St. John’s Church. It was thus led by a White clergy from its consecration in 1867 up until 1873 (Cromwell, 1917, 101). From roughly 1873-1879, St. Mary’s enjoyed full autonomy from White clerical supervision under the new leadership of Dr. Alexander Crummel. The congregation grew enormously in this time period. A victim of its own success, however, a large portion of its parishioners, including Crummel, left the cramped wooden chapel of St. Mary’s to found St. Luke’s, another exclusively Black Episcopalian church. St. Mary’s was reverted back to a mission under St. John’s to rebuild the congregation (Sherwood, 1978, 17).
The construction of the red brick building that stands today marks a turning point of prosperity in the church’s history. The historic white wooden Kalorama chapel housed the congregation for exactly twenty years before it was outgrown [SEE FIG. 1] (St. Mary’s Episcopal Church: 125 and Thriving, 1992). In 1887, architect James Renwick, who also created the Smithsonian Institution, designed the contemporary brick building (ibid). The current structure is much larger, and includes a dispensary alongside the chapel and school [SEE FIG. 6]. The red and white tile floor and Tiffany window remain the same today as when the church’s first service was held in 1887 (ibid). The new building provided space to support the growing community activities, including a primary school and industrial school [SEE FIGS. 4 & 5]. Teaching sewing, cooking, and other related skills, the industrial school provided its Black students with greater opportunities than normally afforded in the working class neighborhood of Foggy Bottom (Sherwood, 1978, 8).
By 1903, the perimeter of Square 42 was lined with row houses, and dwellings along the inner alleys were populated [SEE FIG. 6]. The Alley Dwelling Association named Square 42 an inhabited alleyway beginning in 1871, evidenced by the structures’ layouts in Figure 6 (Borchert, 1980, p. 43-44). The block featured a mix of brick and wooden structures, although St. Mary’s Chapel was the most prominent brick building. Empty lots were scattered among the cramped row houses. The shared outdoor space in the alley way allowed for the church’s community life to overflow outside (Borchert, 1973, p. 258). Sewage lines flowed between the chapel and row houses out to the surrounding streets. This was a key feature of the block in 1903, which was just after the District battled sanitation challenges city-wide, particularly in Foggy Bottom (Cooke, 1989, 298).
1900s to Present
As D.C. entered into the 1900s, several major changes occurred with profound effects on the St. Mary’s congregation. The Foggy Bottom area specifically went through a period of decline in the early 1900s when several major industries left the area (Sherwood, 1978, p. 19). Yet, even with this decline in industry, St. Mary’s continued to survive. By the 1930s, Foggy Bottom’s population was growing. Many African-Americans moved to the area, as seen in an increase in Black churches, mainly Baptist (Sherwood, 1978, p. 24). St. Mary’s continued to thrive as seen in the picture of St. Mary’s Congregation in 1940 [SEE FIG 8]. While the financial situation of many of the congregants remained uncertain, the picture seems to show that several are fairly well-off. Several ladies in the front row are wearing what appear to be fur coats. This analysis of the congregants would correspond with Johnston, who stated that African-American Episcopalian churches tended to attract wealthier and more influential congregants compared to other denominations such as Baptist and Methodist (Johnston, 1993, p. 60).
Despite having accommodations not afforded to other alley dwelling communities, the St. Mary’s Court community was predominantly comprised of African American and underprivileged residents. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church played a crucial role in the surrounding community by utilizing its presumed affluence to create better opportunities for its neighbors (SEE FIG. 8). St. Mary’s Episcopal Church’s mission to serve the desolate, poor, and underprivileged was always clear, as it later included providing support to the Black community. When St. Mary’s Court was revitalized, the question of whether or not Blacks and the poor should continue to be allowed to live in the dwelling became the source of intense, emotional controversy (SEE FIG. 7). Several photographs and media reports from pre-renovation describe racial tensions at a high due to Whites who desired the rehabilitated rooms at the expense of Black occupancy (Gillette, 1995, pp. 142-145). Although this issue was later resolved and Negro occupancy was allowed, understanding the impact of the resulting racial divisions is important in illustrating the history of D.C. as a whole (SEE FIG. 7). St. Mary’s Court is an important site within the Foggy Bottom community because it not only aids in exploring the reality of District alley dwellings, but also the racial and socioeconomic dynamics present within Washington during the 1930s and 1940s.
From 1950 to 1970, Foggy Bottom’s demographic makeup changed as a result of gentrification. (Sherwood, 1978, p. 26). Yet, in 1967 St. Mary’s Episcopal Church was part of a centennial celebration with other churches in the area. As seen in the Ecumenical Program, St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church all came together and participated in a blessing of the palms [SEE FIG. 9]. These churches tended to have large white congregations, yet they were able to unite for this special service. This event displayed solidarity across race and religion during the civil rights movement. Yet, this progress was marred by the violent riots that occurred in D.C. only about a year later.
Now a member of the National Register of Historic Places, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church continues to enrich and serve the Washington, D.C. community by providing a clear understanding of the role of religious communities in District life during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Research, interpretation and text by Brennan Day, Anna McGarrigle, Katherine Schulz, and Najya Williams (2015)
Borchert, James, 1941-. 1982. Alley Life in Washington: Family, Community, Religion, and Folklife in the City, 1850-1970. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Cooke, Michael A. "Physical Environment and Sanitation in the District of Columbia 1860-1868." Records of the Columbia Historical Society. Washington, D.C., Vol. 52, [The 52nd Separately Bound Book] (1989): 289-303. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
Cromwell, John M. The First Negro Churches in the District of Columbia. Diss. U of North Carolina, 1917. N.p.: Journal of Negro History, 1922. 2000. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/church/cromwell/cromwell.html>.
Gillette, Howard. 2006. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Grimmett, Richard F. St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square: The History and Heritage of the Church of the Presidents, Washington, D.C. Minneapolis, MN: Mill City Press, 2009. Print.
Johnston, Allan. Surviving Freedom: The Black Community of Washington, D.C. 1860-1880. N.p.: Garland, 1993. Print.
Sherwood, Suzanne Berry. Foggy Bottom 1800-1975: A Study in Uses of an Urban Neighborhood. Diss. George Washington U, n.d. N.p.: Center for Washington Area Studies, n.d. Web.
"St. Mary's Episcopal Church: 125 and Thriving." Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 4.1 (1992): 89. Spring 1992. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40065275>