The Northeast Washington neighborhood of Brookland was long ago nicknamed “Little Rome,” its skyline defined by the dramatic Basilica of the National Shrine and its few main streets by Catholic University, the headquarters of the Catholic bishops and various seminaries. This is a place where you might spot priests in collars on a grassy field cheering on a team of nuns playing softball.
But in a city booming with new condos and cafes, the grassy fields are disappearing. And in a nation where the number of men and women becoming priests and nuns is plummeting, there are far fewer clergy to be seen around Brookland.
And now one of Little Rome’s intellectual hubs is about to disappear, too.
Newman Bookstore, where top cardinals in town from the Vatican have brushed elbows with young seminarians and urbane laypeople since the store opened in 1955, is closing up shop in May.
In late January, the owners of Newman, and the building that houses it, posted a sign on the door saying that they got an offer from an unnamed renter they couldn’t refuse.
Ironically, the owners are the Paulist Fathers, a Catholic order whose core mission includes promoting Catholic books. A Paulist official said that the bookstore, which is on the Fourth Street campus of St. Paul’s College, is not breaking even and that the brothers cannot afford to subsidize it.
To some, the Brookland that the bookstore opened in decades ago was almost like one big, extended Catholic family. Catholics had more children then, and the migration of Catholic residents to Montgomery County had yet to take place. The vast, open spaces around spiritual spots like the Paulist seminary and St. Anselm’s Abbey added a feeling of seemingly God-inspired peace and quiet.
“When I came, you couldn’t walk down the streets without bumping into nuns and priests in black and white,” said Bob Malesky, a Brookland resident since the late 1960s. Now, of the Little Rome moniker, Malesky says, “I have to explain that nickname a lot to people these days, because it doesn’t seem as self-evident.”
Bells rang every quarter-hour at the Basilica and other spots, and devout Catholics might cross themselves at every block as they drove at midday, passing multiple Catholic institutions where daily Masses were underway.
Bells still ring — albeit at fewer locations — and multiple Masses are still held, but the Catholic stamp is fainter.
The Paulists had already sold a swath of their fields for the development of the smart-looking Chancellor’s Row condos. Catholic University agreed to tear down some housing for a $200 million town center-type project that will add hundreds of apartments, acres of retail, artists’ studios and a large plaza. Ads depict elegantly appointed lofts. And Catholics have gone from being the the vast majority of Brookland residents to perhaps 40 percent, estimated John Feeley Jr., 58, a teacher who grew up in Brookland and has written about its history.
“I thought there were only Catholics and Jews in the world until I was 12,” said Feeley, who is among those concerned about development pushing out Catholic institutions and disturbing Brookland’s meditative feeling. “There is some concern that the strong neighborhood feeling will dissipate, especially if all the housing is developed for people who are transient. It’s been so stable.”
The growth in Brookland is driven by younger families and singles attracted by the neighborhood’s relatively affordable bungalows, new condos, sense of community and green space (some owned by religious orders but open to the public).
Typical among them is Michael Harris-Love, 44, a physical rehabilitation researcher who moved to Brookland in 2005. Harris-Love said he didn’t know about Brookland’s Catholic nickname or past when he and his wife stumbled upon it while house-hunting. Then, on walks, they ran into the gardens of the Franciscan Monastery and came into contact with Catholic University through their jobs.
“The neighborhood has the character because of the institutions, but I don’t know how integrated it is. Maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic, but I get more of a sense of the [Catholic] history and past than I do of an active thing as a newcomer.”
For its first decades, Newman was in the somewhat cramped basement of a building on Eighth Street. About five years ago, it moved into the new space on the campus of St. Paul’s. The store has wide rows marked with signs ranging from “spirituality” and “human sexuality” to “monasticism” and “canon law.” Like a lot of independent bookstores these days, Newman is sleepy.
But that wasn’t always so.
Its popularity stemmed in part from its ability to be a neutral intellectual ground during a half-century of intense Catholic culture wars. Since the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Catholics have been separating themselves into two camps on everything from how much authority God intended for clergy to contraception. The store prided itself on carrying the full range of Catholic thinking and is one of a few in the world where you can peruse a full aisle of Catholic ritual guides in Latin (for traditional types) and another on feminist Catholic theology (for the more experimental). It stocks a huge section of books from popes John Paul II and Benedict as well as from prominent church critics, including James Carroll and Garry Wills.
Its trends were Catholics’ trends.
“People would come in and be surprised by authors they might object to, and the bookstore took no particular stance,” said Thomas Hardy, a retired art history teacher who has been going to Newman since he studied briefly as a young man to become a priest. “One time, someone came in and took issue with some novel about infidelity and asked, ‘Why is this book here?’ The manager said, ‘Have you seen the Bible?’ ”
But while Protestant clergy, particularly evangelicals, have plunged into writing and blogging on everything from weight loss to hip-hop, the reading list even at a place like Newman has limits.
Carl Spier, the current manager, calls it “the discipline of the church.”
Spier, a convert who has run bookstores religious and otherwise for decades, bristled when asked whether he stocked pop theology, such as works by evangelical pastor Rick Warren. “This is 2,000-year-old culture.”
Although the demise of independent bookstores is not new, the Catholic Church overall is also in tighter financial times.
“That’s why you’re going to be seeing more and more of these institutions selling off land for development. It’s not development driving institutions out — they’ve been shrinking for decades now,” Malesky said.
Some are critical of the bookstore’s move off the public street, saying it narrowed customer traffic to insiders who already knew about it, including those who came for conferences at Catholic University or next door at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops building. It is the rare spot where you can get greeting cards celebrating the anniversary of a priest or nun’s “profession” of vows, or a dozen different CDs of Gregorian chant, or a long row of children’s books such as “Don’t Drink the Holy Water! Big Al and Annie Go to Mass.”
“I love Amazon, but it’s no substitute. We’re incarnational, we Catholics — we like to put things in our hands,” said the Rev. Fred Close, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua, a Brookland parish.
Close is among those who welcome the changes in Little Rome. Catholic University, the heart of Brookland, has a growing undergraduate population, and more people and services around them is a good thing.
“We define the Catholic Church as ‘Here comes everybody.’ So we’re not afraid of diversity,” Close said.
But others see something unique fading.
“For the outsider, these developments don’t mean much change, because there is still such a high concentration of Catholic institutions. But for the insiders, it’s a diminishment,” said the Rev. James Martin, a popular Jesuit writer from New York who was at Newman last month to give a lecture in the building. “And it’s a narrowing of tastes. I think it’s sad.”