St. Mary’s Church prepares to celebrate 150th anniversary

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St. Mary’s Church, located at 728 23rd St. NW, was built in 1867 as a refuge for the city’s black population. (Brian Kapur/The Current/May 2017)

For the first quarter century of his life, now-Ward 4 D.C. Council member Brandon Todd attended the same church in North Brentwood, Md., nearly every Sunday. But in 2010, a friend recommended that he check out the services at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom. Todd hasn’t looked back since.

“I don’t plan on going anywhere else after St. Mary’s. This is it,” he told The Current. “I was raised to find a church and stick with it. I’ll be here until I’m no longer here. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place.”

Todd — who started attending the church when he was a staffer for his D.C. Council predecessor, Muriel Bowser — was captured by its unique musical offerings and engaged parishioners. It’s that same strong foundation that has drawn worshippers to St. Mary’s since 1867.

On Saturday, June 10, the Foggy Bottom church will celebrate its 150th anniversary with an open house event, followed the next morning by a special Eucharist service. As part of Saturday’s events, Todd will join his Ward 2 colleague Jack Evans in dedicating the alley just south of the church as St. Mary’s Way.

St. Mary’s was conceived soon after the Civil War as a refuge for black residents, including those who flocked to D.C. in the aftermath of emancipation. The church, then attached to the now-defunct Kalorama Hospital, opened as “St. Mary’s Chapel for Colored People,” the city’s first black Episcopal church.

Designed by prominent architect James Renwick Jr. — whose other local credits include the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall and the art gallery across from the White House that now bears his name — the late Victorian church building occupies a small lot at 728 23rd St. NW. The building has undergone few aesthetic changes since its 1867 birth, and its original stained-glass windows by the firm Lorin of Chartres, France, remain intact.

Quite a bit has changed within, though. Richard English, one of the church’s historians, said that many of the current parishioners now drive from elsewhere in the city or the suburbs, in marked contrast to the local crowd of yesteryear. Further, the church’s population has shifted, with greater racial diversity over time and a recent dwindling of youth parishioners.

“The people that worship there, their spirit is infectious,” English said. “You learn right away there’s a great love and dedication to St. Mary’s. The care with which they carry out their responsibilities. All of that is quite contagious.”

The church’s mission has adapted with the times. At first, it offered rare opportunities for public education to black residents, with sewing and cooking classes. One of the first Boys Club of Washington was organized at St. Mary’s as well.

Now the church serves as a place of healing, according to Windon Ringer, a member of the St. Mary’s restoration committee. Three different Alcoholics Anonymous sessions meet there, as do several LGBTQ groups and on occasion the local Foggy Bottom Association. The goal is always to address as many needs as possible, Ringer said.

“Our function is to be a part of the community, to shape the community no matter what type of religious background a person may have come from,” Ringer said. “We open our doors to everybody.”

Over the decades, the area around St. Mary’s has evolved from working-class origins to greater affluence. The presence of George Washington University has also meant a bigger presence of young people in the area, even if few attend the church’s services.

St. Mary’s has a legacy of powerful hymn-based choir music from such luminaries as Grammy Award-winning soprano and National Medal of Arts winner Jessye Norman, who got her start at St. Mary’s Church and will return as a soloist on June 11.

Generous donations have helped defray the rising cost of maintaining a building of such stature. Right now, the St. Mary’s restoration committee is in the process of fundraising for pricey annual maintenance to the church’s famous century-old organ, which would cost $500,000 to replace. A number of prominent past parishioners left significant sums of money to St. Mary’s in their wills.

Most importantly, St. Mary’s needs to retain that unique feeling that’s kept parishioners entranced for a century and a half. “When the sunlight is coming back through the stained-glass windows, that’s the most beautiful sight in the world,” English said.

The anniversary open house will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on June 10. The following morning, the Eucharist service featuring Norman and guest preacher the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton will begin at 11 a.m., with a reception to follow.