On 150th Anniversary, City's Oldest Black Parish Celebrates Its Legacy

Long before The Washington Post was located at 1150 15th Street a group of freed slaves used their hands to break ground for a chapel that would mark the beginning of Saint Augustine Catholic Church. 150 years later, it is the largest and oldest black Catholic parish in Washington. Archbishop Donald Wuerl attended mass at Saint Augustine's on Sunday to celebrate the anniversary of the parish. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

With special services, prayers of thanksgiving and a march back to their humble beginnings, parishioners from St. Augustine Catholic Church, the city's oldest African American parish, marked their 150th anniversary yesterday.

"What we are celebrating is not only the heritage and legacy of the parish, but the future," said Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl, just before he celebrated Mass yesterday morning at St. Augustine, at 15th and V streets NW.

St. Augustine was founded as a chapel in 1858 after a group of freed slaves broke away from St. Matthew's Cathedral, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Four years later, the founding members of the church broke ground with their bare hands for what would become Martin De Porres Chapel. The parish has more than 3,000 members, continuing its founders' dedication to educating its members.

"They built a school before they built the church," said the Rev. Patrick A. Smith, who said the school was established four years before the District mandated free public education for black children.

St. Augustine grew through the Civil War and, in 1865, was recognized as a full Catholic parish. By 1876, a new building was dedicated at 1150 15th St. NW, the church's home until 1947, when the property was sold.

Today the site is home to The Washington Post. To commemorate their past, about 100 parishioners walked the 10 blocks from their current home to their old one in a light rain.

Rohulamin Quander, a senior administrative law judge for the District, said his family had been affiliated with the church since the 1870s.

"We feel that it is important to know our roots and share the fellowship," he said.

Patricia Brown, a resident of Temple Hills, smiled broadly when the crowd reached the old site. "I had to be here today because my great-great-grandfather Henry Warren was one of the original members of the church, and my father worked at The Post."

In 1961, St. Augustine merged with the parish of St. Paul's, which had a sanctuary at 15th and V streets. The sanctuary there was officially renamed St. Augustine in 1982.

"Truly, the finger of God had to be in this place," said Sister Mary Claudine Sanz of the Oblate Sisters of Providence. Sanz's group is the oldest religious order of black women in the country and has been part of the parish since its inception.

The Rev. John Payne, a former priest at St. Augustine who now teaches at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, said the church's story is an American story.

"It is about faith. It is about defiance," Payne said. "It is about how we as a people have embraced the Catholic Church even when the Church has not always embraced us."

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