St. Mary's Church is a historic Episcopal parish in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. Founded in 1867 as the first African American congregation of the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia, it is now a tightly knit community serving as a witness in a thriving international city.
Families with five generations of history at St. Mary's worship alongside new transplants to the area, as well as George Washington University students, visitors, and tourists. We would love to welcome you to worship and experience the special place we call our spiritual home.
St. Mary's History
In 1865, 28 black men and women took the first steps toward establishing an Episcopal parish specifically for black people in Washington, DC. The racial discrimination of the era, even in most houses of worship, required pews in remote corners for people of color; white congregants receiving Holy Communion before black communicants; segregated Sunday School classes for children; and only limited access to baptisms, marriages, or burials in the church for African Americans.
Shortly after the 1866 Washington Episcopal Clergy Convocation called for the Church “to organize congregations in destitute localities...and [to] encourage the building of new churches,” the Rev. Dr. Charles Hall, Rector of the Church of the Epiphany, and the Rev. Dr. John V. Lewis, Rector of St. John’s Church & Lafayette Square, began collaborating to establish a new church for black people. Mrs. Catherine Pearson, a parishioner at St. John’s, offered Dr. Lewis a lot on 23rd Street in the predominantly black and sparsely settled area known as Foggy Bottom.
President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, was a member of Dr. Hall’s congregation on whom the rector frequently called in trying times. Dr. Hall recalled that during one such visit, “something led him to mention...[the] chapel attached to Kalorama Hospital, which was about to be taken down.” Secretary Stanton saw to it that the chapel was taken apart, loaded on wagons, and rebuilt on the new (and current) 23rd Street site as the first church building exclusively for Washington’s black Episcopalians. First called St. Barnabas Mission, this new church for black people held its opening service on 9 June 1867; the Rev. Drs. Hall and Lewis shared the pulpit.
In September 1867, the church was renamed St. Mary’s Chapel for Colored People. By 1874, less than a year after the arrival of St. Mary’s first full-time rector, the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell, St. Mary’s became capable of complete autonomy and thus independent of St. John’s supervisory authority. However, only two years later, confusion over land titles led Rev. Crummel and most of St. Mary’s parishioners to re-assemble elsewhere in what became St. Luke’s parish.
Nevertheless, Foggy Bottom residents, nearly all black but not all Episcopalians, maintained and slowly expanded St. Mary’s as their church home. By 1882, 128 girls were enrolled in sewing and cooking classes at St. Mary’s Industrial School (initially housed in the church but moved to a small brick schoolhouse built behind the church) and 150 children attended St. Mary’s Sunday School.
“All St. Mary’s needs [to attract additional black parishioners] is a church which will command their respect,” said active parishioner Hon. J.C. Bancroft Davis in May 1885. Judge Davis already knew he wanted the same architect for St. Mary’s who had so impressively expanded St. John’s in 1883: James Renwick, Jr. Despite the restrictions of a small budget and his preference to place buildings on the perimeter of a site, Renwick designed St. Mary’s current buildings according to the most advanced principles of Late Victorian architecture.
Inside the church, Renwick’s focal points were the clearly articulated chancel framed by an arch of contrasting brick and the handsome timber roof. All of the chancel furniture was designed by Renwick and made in New York City under his supervision. Unlike for the exterior design, money was not a problem for the interior decoration. The polychromatic stenciling, bronze sanctuary rail, tile and marble floors, etc., once authorized by Judge Davis, were paid for by generous donors.
The stained glass windows were designed and executed according to Judge Davis’ specific instructions by the firm Renwick considered the finest in the world, Lorin of Chartres, France, and, in the case of the Stanton window, by the Tiffany Studios.
St. Mary's has been a central institution in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood as it has grown into a thriving educational and federal center of the District of Columbia. At the beginning of the 21st century, our parish is now a thriving multigenerational community, encompassing members from throughout the DC area – recent immigrants, students, transplants to DC, and families with five generations of history at St. Mary's, all worshipping together in the Episcopal tradition as it has been practiced here across three centuries of American life.