St. Patrick Catholic Church
Our History
 

A Short History of St. Patrick Parish
Saint Patrick's Church - Washington, D.C.

By Father Paul Liston

Based on A Parish for the Federal City: St. Patrick's in Washington, 1894-1994 by Morris MacGregor (Catholic University Press, December 1995). To purchase a copy of the 400+ page book, send a check or money order to St. Patrick's Church or stop by the rectory during office hours. The hard-cover book costs $30 plus postage and handling.


St. Patrick's Parish was established in 1794, primarily to meet the needs of Irish immigrants at work on the White House and the Capitol building. Bishop John Carroll appointed an Irish Dominican, Fr. Anthony Caffry, as its first pastor. The initial structure on the present property was a simple frame chapel/residence, one of the first church buildings in the new Federal City. This was six years before the government moved to the Capital in 1800. The pioneer period of St. Patrick's Parish and the City of Washington was marked by struggles on the part of both to be viable.

The first American to be ordained a priest in the United States, Fr. William Matthews, was named pastor in 1804. This multi-talented clergyman occupied the post for fifty years, during which time he was also President of Georgetown University, Administrator of the Philadelphia Diocese, co-founder of the D.C. Public Library, long-time member of the D.C. Public School Board, as well as founder or promoter of innumerable institutions (e.g. Gonzaga College, Visitation Convent, and St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum). As the "Catholic Patriarch of Washington," Father Matthews was on close terms with Washington notables such as Henry Clay and Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney; Presidents Zachery Taylor and John Quincy Adams attended parish events. Fr. Matthews' passing in 1854 marked a long era of Catholic involvement in the Federal City's civic life.

The second church in brick, dedicated in 1809, was reputedly after a design by a parishioner, James Hoban, the architect of the White House. Soon after, the church was the scene in 1814 of British soldiers attending Sunday mass when they invaded the Capital and burned its public buildings. Eventually the brick church was embellished with the city's first pipe organ, a gift pulpit from Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil and a painting from Charles X of France.

The 1850's brought waves of new Catholic immigrants; the Civil War caused Washington to swell with burgeoning numbers of troops, some 50,000 wounded soldiers and new government employees. The parish under Father Jacob Walter, its fourth pastor, undertook its new challenges with vigor. Father Walter was especially outspoken in the defense of Mary Surratt, a parish member who was convicted of complicity in Lincoln's assassination. The pastor stood beside her on the gallows at her execution. The post-war period with its fiscal depression gave Fr. Walter reason to enlarge St. Joseph's Orphanage for Boys, to found St. Rose's Industrial School and St. Joseph's Home for the Aged served by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

It was under Father Walter's direction that the present gothic church was begun in 1872 and finally dedicated in 1884. The grand church quickly became the venue for national and international events, most notably the First National Eucharistic Congress in 1895. At the same time the parish was fast becoming the "downtown" church of a thriving commercial area.

The first two decades of the new century brought St. Patrick's to its zenith of influence in the American church. The splendor of its liturgy and the dynamism of its many parish organizations hardly had its equal in this country. This was largely the efforts of two nationally prominent priests, Denis Stafford and William Russell.

Father Stafford was one of the most noted orators of his day, as well as famous for his recitation of Shakespeare. In his time the present rectory and school building were completed in English gothic style (1904) and dedicated by Cardinal Gibbons and President Theodore Roosevelt. Becoming pastor in 1908, the energetic Monsignor Russell initiated the annual Pan-American Mass to promote relations among the American Republics. Presidents Taft and Wilson encouraged this effort by their attendance. The splendid parish liturgies were matched by equally zealous parish outreach and evangelization. Monsignor Russell went from St. Patrick's to become the bishop of Charleston, South Carolina.

Two weeks after the start of World War I, Monsignor Cornelius Thomas became the eighth pastor. This rough and ready clergyman galvanized parish organizations to address the needs of the many troops and workers who flooded in to the war time capital. The virulent influenza epidemic that killed more than 3,500 in six weeks, found St. Patrick's clergy fully engaged. Finally, the armistice was gratefully celebrated with a grand Te Deum on Thanksgiving Day of 1918.

Throughout the postwar decades the mother parish of Washington continued to serve as a sort of pro-cathedral for the Baltimore Archdiocese. The changing character of the neighborhood necessitated adjustments in parish activities, while the Great Depression brought about a strong response to unprecedented needs locally and citywide. Eventually a professional Catholic Charities Organization emerged under Monsignor Thomas' prompting. A young assistant priest of the parish, Father Lawrence Shehan (later Cardinal Archbishop of Baltimore) guided Catholic Charities during these depression times. Another young assistant, Father Thomas Dade, initiated the Catholic Police and Firemen's Society. Some eleven hundred police and firemen in blue marching into St. Patrick's for their annual mass was a stirring sight. On a very different note, the newly formed St. Patrick's Players staged dramas and passion plays witnessed by tens of thousands locally and on the road.

The death of Monsignor Thomas, whose active pastorate spanned from one World War to another, closed an era and opened another. Lawrence Shehan, now a monsignor, was the logical successor as pastor. Soon after Pearl Harbor a Catholic USO Club was opened nearby by the able organizer, Fr. Thomas Dade. Throughout the war thousands of servicemen and women were fed and then entertained by dance bands in shifts. Under Msgr. Shehan the parish grade school was integrated in 1942, despite complaints from some quarters. Even during wartime St. Patrick's played host to the newly-formed Washington branch of the Catholic Interracial Council. With VJ Day the parish again marked the end of another war by a grand mass of thanksgiving.

Lawrence Shehan was consecrated a bishop at St. Patrick's in December of 1945 and replaced as pastor by John Russell, a nephew of the former pastor, Bishop William Russell. Under the impetus of Father Russell, the parish now became associated with the Catholic Radio Hour and the Catholic Evidence Guild which prompted street preaching in nearby parks. The popular convert classes were led by the likes of Fulton J. Sheen.

The creation of the new Archdiocese of Washington in 1947 brought its new Archbishop, Patrick A. O'Boyle, to live at St. Patrick's rectory. While the Archbishop resided here, the ordinary parish affairs were directed by administrators, notably Bishop Philip Hannan. Bishop Hannan (later pastor) encouraged the parish's emerging role as a spiritual haven in the city center (as a kind of "downtown monastery." Although actual residents of the parish had dwindled markedly, holy days still necessitated as many as twenty-two masses to accommodate some fifteen thousand worshipers. In the 50's and 60's House Speaker John McCormick and Congressman Thomas "Tip" O'Neill along with ordinary government workers frequented early Sunday masses. The Pan-American Mass marked its fiftieth anniversary in 1959 and welcomed President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

The bullet that struck down Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in April of 1968 unleashed a wave of urban violence. The priests and sisters of St. Patrick's witnessed firsthand the arson and looting nearby, a riot that would dramatically change the face of central Washington together with the parish. St. Patrick's Academy opened its doors and fed a batallion of soldiers occupying an adjacent building. Once again "occupying" troops attended church here.

The aftermath of the riots and the advent of Vatican II prompted a number of changes in parish life. These difficult, yet challenging days were ably charted under the pastorship of Monsignor E. Robert Arthur. With a hand in founding many schools, the parish had been a leader in Catholic education going back to the 1820's. Now, despite valiant efforts, St. Patrick's Academy closed its doors. The Sisters of the Holy Cross had labored in parish education from 1865 to the school's closing in 1985.

Preparation to the 200th anniversary of the parish on St. Patrick's Day of 1994, the more-than-century old church structure was extensively repaired and renewed through the efforts of Monsignor Donald Essex as pastor. This renewal kept well in mind the vision of its architect and the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Throughout its history, St. Patrick's mission has often accommodated to changes in the neighborhood as well as the changing needs of its congregation. The late 1990s saw a revitalization of St. Patrick's neighborhood as second hand stores and long-neglected commercial buildings were renovated and large new office buildings constructed. Along with this increase in neighborhood office workers came new condominium and apartment buildings, bringing new parishioners to St. Patrick's. Even the former St. Patrick's Academy found a new purpose when the property was re-dedicated in 2001 as the James Cardinal Hickey Center, the new downtown home for Catholic Charities.

The 16th pastor, Monsignor Peter Vaghi, worked tirelessly during this period of renewal to attract many new parishioners to the parish through an active neighborhood evangelization program and through his service as chaplain to the John Carroll Society, an association of Catholic laypersons united in their desire for an ever deepening and enriching knowledge of their faith and in service to the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. The society sponsors a First Friday devotion at St. Patrick's, along with additional Masses throughout the year. In addition, St. Patrick's is the home each year of Washington's Blue Mass, which is dedicated to the city's police, firefighters, and other law enforcement personnel. The current pastor of St. Patrick's, Monsignor Salvatore A. Criscuolo, serves as chaplain to these brave first responders in the nation's capital.

Construction was completed in 2006 of a new office building next door to St. Patrick's, on land originally purchased by Father Matthews in the early 1800s and now owned by the Archdiocese of Washington. The property, leased to private developers with tenants including a large law firm, is named Carroll Square, in honor of the first bishop of the United States. After construction, a several month long renovation project was successfully undertaken by Monsignor Criscuolo to repair cracks and other related damage to St. Patrick's caused by the building of the Carroll Square office complex.

In 2008, St. Patrick's parish began the first new construction effort since Father Walter completed the main Gothic style church in the late 1800s. A new parish hall and restrooms are expected to be dedicated by early 2009.

As a spiritual and cultural oasis in the heart of a booming neighborhood of office workers and residents, St. Patrick's continues its grand tradition of liturgy and music, and launches into its third century of service to the Church and to the Federal City.


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