For nearly 10 years, the leaders of St. Thomas’ Parish near Dupont Circle have had a recurring but elusive dream: to rebuild their 121-year-old English Gothic sanctuary, which was nearly destroyed by a fire in 1970.
When the Episcopal church struck a deal with a private developer recently to finance a reconstruction plan that would help its leaders erect a modern religious center, they thought they had taken a significant step toward creating a new home for their congregation.
But the vision of a gleaming new worship center in the middle of one of the city’s most congested neighborhoods has raised concerns from neighbors. To pay for the new church, parish leaders must sell part of their property — now a park — to a private developer, who wants to build a seven-story apartment building on the parcel.
The new buildings, many neighbors say, would change the character of the community, as they have come to love the historic church’s architecture and the remains left by the fire 44 years ago.
Church leaders said that they have a unique opportunity to leverage the value of their property so they can expand their sanctuary and services for the parish, where Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson once prayed.
“Both the church and the Diocese of Washington have determined that the land on which the park and current church facilities stand is St. Thomas’ Parish’s most valuable asset, and that this asset must be used to the greatest benefit of the future of the church,” said Senior Warden Matthew Cloninger, 41.
The neighbors are also fighting for the park next to the sanctuary, soon to be sold, which they have come to see as a valuable piece of open space.
The issues will come before the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission on July 7 for review before going to the District’s Historical Preservation Review Board. Opponents said that because they have not been able to weigh in on the development plans, they will use the coming meetings to express their opposition.
“They communicated to us like a parent talks to a child,” Scott Royal, who lives three blocks from the church, said of the consultations. He said many in the community didn’t know anything about the church’s plans until February. “They had already made decisions and just came to sell them to us.”
At its heart, the debate is yet another difficult conversation about a perennial issue in the District: how longtime churches can expand or redevelop in densely populated neighborhoods. Church leaders said that for nearly 40 years, they rarely considered rebuilding the old structure and have been worshiping in a 1922 hall that survived the 1970 fire. Their congregation has been modest over the years, and they were content with their limited space. Cloninger said the new four-story worship center would serve the needs of their slowly growing flock and their outreach programs to the community.
“Besides the need for adequate worship space for both current and future members, the church is in dire need of rooms for educational, hospitality and community gatherings that are currently very difficult and impossible to host,” he said. As part of its plan, the church, headed by the Rev. Nancy Lee Jose, hopes to sell a 19,000-square-foot plot of land, including two lots on P Street NW, to CAS Riegler to erect the 50-unit apartment building. The land makes up two-thirds of the church’s real estate, and the proceeds from the sale of the land will fund the new church center.
The plan also calls for dismantling some ruins of the old church and integrating them into the new buildings. The altar, chancel and reredo will be incorporated into the new church, while the Church Street facade will become part of the apartment building.
The local community wants them preserved in their original state, context and place. For many, the loss and alteration of sections of the historic structure are a loss for the neighborhood. They often point out that the sanctuary was a place where presidents came to worship.
“Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson once sat there, and we consider that to be part of our history,” said Suzanne Richardson, a landscape designer who lives a half-block from the church.
The group has hired an architectural historian to fight for its interests when the parish and CAS Riegler appear before the Historical Preservation Review Board on July 24.
“The parishioners don’t live here. They spend less than six hours here during Sunday service. It is us who will live with that concrete,” said Jose Labarca, 53, an international development specialist who lives a block and a half from the church.
The protesters are holding private meetings, distributing fliers and posters, and recruiting more members via a Facebook page called Neighbors of St. Thomas Church as they try to alter the church’s plans.
They have also launched a petition campaign, and more than 500 people have signed. They plan to use the petition to lobby local elected leaders and city authorities to stop the project and help them retain the park.
“We are not against the church’s expansion. What we are opposing is the way they want to do it. There must be a better way,” Royal said.
Parish leaders maintain that the new structure is about a rebirth of sorts. “For years, people have been thinking we no longer exist after the fire,” said Robert Moluf, chairman of the church’s communications committee. “It looks like a ruined church. We want them to know that the real church still exists.”