St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, began in 1712 as a "chapel of ease," a meeting place for the convenience of church members who lived in a vast Maryland parish.
In 1719, vestryman and planter John Bradford gave 100 acres to the church as a "glebe," land that could be used for the benefit of the church, and the church built its first sanctuary. Rock Creek became an independent parish in 1726.
In 1775, after fire damaged the original wood building, the congregation rebuilt the sanctuary using brick. In 1886, the building was expanded and remodeled to give it a Victorian look. That building was gutted by fire in 1921, but the walls survived and the church was rebuilt in 1922 in neo-Colonial style.
The 2004 renovation reconfigured the 3,200-square-foot worship area so a new pipe organ could be centrally located behind new altar rails and a new pulpit. The oak pews were refinished and reoriented so that 200 to 250 people have a full view of the pulpit, altar area and organ. The 1922 terra-cotta floor was replaced with marble, and a new sound system was installed.
Enough of the original brick structure remains to qualify St. Paul's as the oldest standing church in the District, said Pamela Scott, an architectural historian who completed a three-year historical survey of the city's 1,000 houses of worship last year for the D.C. Office of Planning.
The chapel sits in the center of Rock Creek Cemetery, which began in 1719 as a burial place for parishioners. The church opened the cemetery to outsiders in the early 1800s, and since that time most of the 100,000-plot cemetery has been sold or used.
Notable residents include George Washington Riggs, founder of Riggs Bank; Julius Garfinckel, founder of Garfinckel's department store; Gilbert H. Grosvenor, president of the National Geographic Society; Patricia Roberts Harris, secretary of health and human services under Jimmy Carter; Alexander "Boss" Shepherd, the last D.C. territorial governor; novelist Upton Sinclair; and Rosalie Mackenzie Poe, sister of Edgar Allan Poe.
The cemetery features some of the grandest oak and evergreen trees in the city and more than six miles of roads -- a popular route in the 1800s for Sunday afternoon carriage rides. The cemetery's acreage was reduced by 14, to 86, when the city extended New Hampshire Avenue about a century ago.
-- Bill Broadway