In the harsh winter of 1948, a crowd gathered one January day outside St. Augustine's Church at 15th and L streets NW--some of them weeping--and watched as the two 60-foot Gothic spires of the 75-year-old church were reduced to rubble.
St. Augustine's was the District's first church for "colored Catholics," and a pet project of Abraham Lincoln's, built by the hands of its founders, some of them former slaves.
Tomorrow, St. Augustine's members, including some who watched the building's destruction, will march from their parish's current location at 15th and V streets NW to unveil a plaque at The Washington Post building, now occupying the site where their church once stood.
They plan to celebrate St. Augustine's 126th year as the capital's oldest black Catholic parish with a Gospel mass and an official proclamation of St. Augustine's Day presented by a representative for Mayor Marion Barry.
"There are several older people who said they can't bear to come down to the unveiling of the plaque this Sunday because they said it's just too sad for them," said Pauline Jones, 70, a lifetime member of St. Augustine's.
"There are some people who've just never gotten over it," Jones said.
Not all members are nostalgic for the old building. Beatrice Stewart, 84, a lifetime member of the church, said she has learned to roll with the changes. "I looked forward to moving," she said. "Everytime they moved I moved with them. . . . I never cried."
Despite its several moves, St. Augustine's has kept its tradition as a leader of innovative social programs--the Washington Archdiocese's first credit union, a youth summer camp and job search program, tutoring, and services for the elderly, poor and homeless.
The church's social outreach programs have affected the entire community surrounding its current location, which includes a school and a convent. The archdiocese established its Office of Urban Affairs in 1967, which took its roots and inspiration from St. Augustine's.
"I'm very excited," said the Rev. John Mudd, pastor of St. Augustine's, of the anniversary celebration. "It does commemorate a history of a people who struggled to be Catholic and to provide education to children who were denied education in the public education system because they were black."
St. Augustine's first members, a group of emancipated blacks, established D.C.'s first school for black children in 1858, the Blessed Martin De Porres School and Chapel, across 15th Street from the original church. The school became an outlet for parishioners' frustrations with slavery, the Catholic Church's coolness toward blacks and the humiliation of belonging to a congregation without a church.
The founders had been relegated to worshiping in the basement of St. Matthew's Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue. Their desire to build a church for black Catholics led to a fund-raising "strawberry festival," held on the White House grounds July 4, 1864, by President and Mrs. Lincoln, who strongly supported a church for black Catholics in the nation's capital.
A decade later the cornerstone of St. Augustine's Church was laid, and after two years of hard work by parishioners, who excavated and built the church themselves to save building costs, it was dedicated on Trinity Sunday, 1876, with 3,000 persons in a procession from City Hall to its front door. Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday, 108 years later.
"I think it's very significant that the church was officially recognized as a parish in 1874 and in 1876 they had this huge church," said Mudd. "That original church seated 1,500 people, the present church seats 550 people, so you can imagine the size of that building."
The church was sold in 1946 for $300,000--for reasons still debated within the archdiocese--and razed two years later.
"The last mass held there was Christmas Eve 1947 just before they tore it down . . . . Oh, it was sad," said Jones. A year earlier the congregation moved to a church a few blocks north at 15th and S streets, at what is now Bishop's Gate condominiums.
In 1961, St. Augustine's was merged with the mostly white St. Paul's Church at 15th and V, and renamed Sts. Paul and Augustine until 1982, when the name was restored to St. Augustine's. Today, the church has 3,000 members and an active congregation of 750.
Although it has long been a mecca for black Catholics in Washington, St. Augustine's has never had a black pastor. "I think the church should have had a black pastor by now," said Mudd.
Beatrice Stewart, who was baptized at St. Augustine's in 1900, said her parents and five of her siblings were married at the church, and family funerals were held there. She recalled riding a streetcar from Northeast to attend mass as a child.
"The church is always doing something and I like that, I don't get sad about the past," said Stewart, who plans to attend the celebration. "I just look forward to what it will be doing next."