St. Mary's, the District’s first African American Episcopal congregation, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There’s an English village church in Foggy Bottom, with fine brickwork, a timber ceiling, Gothic arch doorways and a tidy garden. All that’s missing are lichen-covered headstones set in hummocks of grass.

Hummocks of grass may be in short supply at 23rd and G streets NW, but there’s plenty of history at St. Mary’s Church, which over the weekend celebrated its 150th anniversary as the city’s first African American congregation of the Episcopal Church.

The mayor came, as did city council members, Advisory Neighborhood Commission members and, of course, St. Mary’s parishioners.

“I pass a whole bunch of churches to get here,” JoAnne Beard said Saturday afternoon. She lives in Silver Spring, Md., but can’t imagine worshiping anywhere else. To explain why, she took me to an old black-and-white photograph on display in a church meeting room.

JoAnne pointed to a man in the picture who was standing with dozens of other people, all formally dressed and all members of the church. His name was Charles Perritt, and he was JoAnne’s grandfather. Next to him, wearing a handsome but not overly flashy hat, was his wife, Alberta Perritt.

A stained-glass window by Tiffany honors Edwin M. Stanton, who directed that a surplus Army building be moved to Foggy Bottom for use as the St. Mary’s chapel. That structure was replaced by James Renwick Jr.’s building, completed in 1887. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

“I am extremely honored to be a part of something today that he was part of all his life,” JoAnne said. She served in the military for 21 years. “Everywhere I went, I compared it to this place.”

Rhoda McLeese Smith has a long family history at St. Mary’s, too. Her mother, also named Rhoda, joined as a young girl.

“Her father brought her to Washington from Berryville, Virginia, to have a tonsillectomy, and he stayed,” Rhoda said.

“This is why I love this church,” said Mercia Arnold, who was showing me around St. Mary’s. “There are all these stories of community.”

That’s what churches are: communities. Churches are people. They aren’t just bricks and mortar. Still, if you’ve got the choice, wouldn’t you rather spend your Sundays in a place with nice bricks and mortar?

St. Mary’s is in a building designed by James Renwick Jr. , the architect responsible for the Smithsonian Castle, the Renwick Gallery and for renovation work done at St. John’s, the gold-domed church on Lafayette Square.

St. John’s was among the white Episcopal churches that helped St. Mary’s get its start in 1867. Church of the Epiphany was another. After the Civil War, black worshipers were tired of second-class status at white churches, made to sit separately and served communion last. A St. John’s parishioner donated land in Foggy Bottom. Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war, directed that a surplus Army building be taken down and transported there for use as a chapel.

“Board by board, the A-frame was dismantled and brought to this location,” said Richard English, a member since 1985 who on Saturday lectured on the architecture and adornment of St. Mary’s.

That simple structure was eventually replaced by Renwick’s building, which was completed in 1887. The three stained-glass windows over the altar were made by the Lorin firm of Chartres, France.

Another stained-glass window — a serene angel holding a bowl marked “Peace” — was made by the famed Tiffany. It honors Stanton and was commissioned by Mary O. Augusta, the widow of Alexander Augusta , the U.S. Army’s first black physician and, after the Civil War, a professor of medicine at Howard University.

The Tiffany window is set into the church’s northern wall, so it doesn’t catch any direct sunlight, but, congregants note, it still seems to glow with an ethereal light.

Poised for action

Linda Keenan responded to my recent invitation to share observations about how the people who live or work in a neighborhood give it a certain flavor.

Wrote Linda: “When I see a stylishly dressed, fit woman with outstanding posture walking toward Ellsworth Drive in downtown Silver Spring, I know she is a dance instructor at the Maryland School of Ballet. I give these ladies credit for upping the glamour quotient in this neck of the woods!”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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