Throughout its long history, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, with its High Church services, had been a bastion for those who gloried in lengthy ceremonies. They looked upon their parish as a symbolic, though anachronistic, reminder of things past.
Last week, Emmanuel Episcopal died--an overwhelmingly white church in overwhelmingly black Anacostia.
A quiet gasp was plainly audible in the emotion-charged silence as the congregation witnessed the church altar being stripped, a rite that symbolized the ending of 113 years of continous worship at Emmanuel Episcopal.
Congregants didn't blame the neighborhood around 13th and V streets SE, where the church was located, for its death. They blamed themselves. White migration in the '50s, older members dying off, failure to recruit younger members--these are the reasons they give for the death of their church.
On the last night of worship, held in the rectory adjacent to the church (which was burned out six years ago by a fire of suspicious origin and never rebuilt), sadness, loyalty, and good memories blotted out the decades-long travail of a nearly all-white congregation battling to preserve its identity, and steadfastly clinging to its ways despite social forces that challenged its rigidity and single-mindedness. The black neighborhood did, indeed, have the last word.
Catherine Downs moved to Anacostia in 1922. At that time, Emmanuel's was considered a small-town, southern Maryland-style church: beautiful, homey, godly with its high cathedral ceiling, polished pulpit and lectern and deep-grained litany benches. Downs' parents introduced her to the church when she was five. In turn, Downs raised her children in the same Emmanuel tradition. Her daughter Jean was married and her son David was baptized there.
"It was beautiful . . . breathtaking, that church," remembers David Downs, who along with another parishioner, Barbara King, once played in the green grass on Emmanuel's meticulously landscaped grounds.
"We swapped recipes, we were neighbors, we were close," Margaret Anderson, an Emmanuel member for 40 years, recalled of the parishioners.
Anacostia Parish was established in 1869 by the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Emmanuel was founded in 1870, and the building where the Downs family and Margaret Anderson worshipped was built in 1905.
Emmanuel's history parallels that of St. Philip the Evangelist Episcopal Church, located a block away at 1345 U St. SE. It is this church, the other Episcopal congregation established for blacks, that presented Emmanuel with its greatest challenge. It was St. Philip's that prospered and flourished with an active, involved, steadily growing congregation, while Emmanuel died with a final membership of fewer than 20 persons. St. Philip's rolls boast ten times that number.
Established in 1888, St. Philip's struggled as a tiny chapel at 2431 Shannon Place SE for many years, making do with a small, two-pedal organ to carry the lilt and swoop of a heavily gospel-oriented congregation. During the 1940s, change came to sleepy, rural Anacostia as urban renewal displaced blacks from downtown and forced them across the Anacostia River. At this time, Emmanuel claimed 400 members and an 1890 vintage organ worth thousands of dollars. The contrast between the white church and the black one could not have been more stark.
Emmanuel's members began leaving Anacostia in droves as blacks moved into the area. Catherine Downs was herself part of the mass migration of the early '50s. "I continued to commute, but most of the members simply transferred to other congregations," said Downs, describing her continuing association with Emmanuel after she moved to Marlow Heights, Md.
The Rev. Jesse Anderson Jr., vicar of St. Philip's, integrated Emmanuel's congregation for the first time in 1975, by leading a delegation of his members to the church as a protest against Emmanuel's refusal to allow St. Philip's to use some of its vacant rooms for community programs that St. Philip's did not have the space to house. Emmanuel, after a period of long negotiation, finally gave in, but steadfastly refused to involve itself in joint community programs that Anderson and others had urged.
Anderson was on good terms with Emmanuel's rector, the Rev. Kenneth Truelove. Truelove's intentions to cooperate, however, were undercut by some of his members and the church's governing body. Truelove, who came to the church in 1974, likes the neighborhood. "I've always liked it. It's one of the few places in the city where the front porch is used. Where people sit and say hello when you pass by," he said.
Truelove's good intentions were not enough. According to Truelove, several of Emmanuel's members made clear that they did not like the idea of blacks on the premises. Bad blood flowed both ways, culminating in the 1976 fire that gutted the church. "It was really down hill from there," said Truelove.
For the past six years, the Emmanuel congregation has been worshipping in the church rectory, which is drafty in the winter and stuffy in the summer. "Most people didn't even know we were there," said Margaret Anderson.
The rectory stairs, floorboards and pews creaked during the last service. Mary Jane Russell, a Catholic organist who volunteered her service at Emmanuel, played softly under the creaks and sobs at the beginning of the service. The Right Rev. John T. Walker, Episcopal bishop of Washington, and a black man, deconsecrated the building and proclaimed it "No longer a place of worship."
By tradition, during this procedure all consecrated objects are to be removed from the building, but it was decided that all such objects would be held as the bishop spoke. Lillian Fields, the congregation's only black member, stood in a semicircle with 15 other members gathered around Truelove and Walker. Fields was handed the altar linen. And then on down the line, as each standing member was handed something: the missal stand, an altar candlestick, a silver chalice, an alms basin--on down the line, as hands flew to faces when the tears began to flow. And with the removal of the crucifix from the front wall, from somewhere came a gasp.
"I've lost a part of me. I've lost a dear friend. A dear friend who shouldn't have died," said 20-year member Barbara King, between wracking sobs.
The Rev. Anderson recently voiced regret at the death of Emmanuel. "It's unfortunate," he said, "but when you don't open your doors to the community, you die. They chose to rigidly maintain their way in spite of all. They chose to be served, rather than to serve."