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
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
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
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.