Since free men and women of color – including some people emancipated from slavery – founded a Catholic school in Washington, D.C., in 1858 that eventually became St. Augustine Parish, the “mother church” for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital has made and witnessed history.

In 1889, St. Augustine Church hosted the first National Congress of Colored Catholics, the forerunner to today’s National Black Catholic Congress. That first congress was organized by pioneer Catholic journalist Daniel Rudd, and it opened on New Year’s Day, with a Mass celebrated by Father Augustus Tolton, a former slave now being considered for sainthood who was the first African-American to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest for the United States. 

After hosting out-of-town marchers who came to the city for the March on Washington, St. Augustine parishioners attended a special morning Mass on Aug. 28, 1963 – coincidentally, their patron saint’s feast day – and then they walked together from their church to join the rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 23, 2015, members of the St. Augustine Gospel Choir met outside their church, and then walked about two miles to the White House, where they sang at the welcoming ceremony for Pope Francis hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Father Patrick Smith, an African American priest of the Archdiocese of Washington who has served as pastor of St. Augustine for the past 15 years, said the parish has already invited Washington Archbishop-designate Wilton Gregory to visit. On April 4, Pope Francis named Archbishop Gregory of Atlanta as the new archbishop of Washington. When Archbishop Gregory is installed as the seventh archbishop of Washington during a May 21 Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he will also become the first African American prelate to serve in that role.

In the spring newsletter for St. Augustine Catholic School, Father Smith wrote a reflection about Washington’s new archbishop with the headline, “A Historic Appointment and Powerful Affirmation.”

“It’s exciting. It’s definitely historic,” Father Smith said in an interview with the Catholic Standard. “To have the first African American archbishop in Washington is definitely significant.”

The priest added, “Race shouldn’t matter. Unfortunately in America it does. Race has always mattered.”

That reality, he said, has also been true in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

“Because of our race, blacks couldn’t go in the seminary” or enter some religious communities, Father Smith said, noting that in times of segregation Black Catholics also “had to sit in the back of churches and wait until the end of the Communion line,” and black children weren’t accepted in segregated Catholic schools.

In a 2016 interview, the priest expressed admiration for how black Catholics at St. Augustine Parish kept the faith, through times of segregation and racism in society and in the Church. During the parish’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2008, Father Smith noted that the parish’s founders knew that education and learning about how to live a life for God led to true freedom, and he said parishioners today are keeping that legacy of faith alive in their support for St. Augustine School.

Father Smith believes that Archbishop Gregory’s appointment as the new archbishop of Washington demonstrates that “Pope Francis has faith in him,” and it also shows “his race will not be a disqualifier, and with the appointment, Pope Francis is saying he is eminently qualified to be the archbishop of Washington.”

The priest was especially moved when Archbishop Gregory, at his opening press conference when he was introduced as the next archbishop of Washington, told how he had been inspired to become Catholic and ultimately a priest while attending St. Carthage School in Chicago as a sixth grader and witnessing the faith, love and dedication of the parish priests and Adrian Dominican sisters there.

“His own story is such an inspiration, the story of a black child who was not Catholic being accepted into a Catholic school, St. Carthage, and as a result, falling in love with the Catholic faith, and later aspiring to the priesthood,” said Father Smith.

For the pastor of St. Augustine Parish and School, Archbishop Gregory’s story offers an affirmation of their school’s purpose. “All that happened because he was accepted into a Catholic school,” the priest said. “If you ever doubt a Catholic school education can make a difference in the life of one black child who may not be Catholic, then doubt no longer, for such a school has produced for us the next archbishop of Washington.”

Father Smith also noted that St. Augustine’s founders made a Catholic school available to black children in 1858, and “100 years later, St. Carthage began enrolling black children for the first time, and one of them was a boy named Wilton.”

Like the Chicago parish priests and Dominican sisters who inspired Washington’s future archbishop, Father Patrick Smith said he and the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, members of a religious community from Nigeria who staff the school with lay teachers, “try to inspire kids today to really fall in love with their faith.”

At St. Augustine School – which serves 184 students from the prekindergarten through the eighth grade – the sisters continue the historic legacy of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who staffed the school for much of its history. In 1829 in Baltimore, Mother Mary Lange, whose cause for sainthood is also under consideration, founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the nation’s first religious order for women of color.

In the St. Augustine School newsletter, Sister Gloriamary Agumagu, a Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus who has been the school’s principal for the past 10 years, noted that the school now serves families with roots in the United States, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Jamaica, the Philippines, and from the Dominican Republic and other Latin American countries.

She has said that in addition to providing students with an excellent academic education, they also want to plant seeds of faith. That was demonstrated at the Easter Vigil at St. Augustine Church in 2010, when 19 children from the school were baptized as Catholics by Father Smith. Afterward, one of the students said, “When I wake up in the morning, He (Jesus) is part of my life.”

So the story of how Archbishop Gregory’s Catholic school impacted his life hits home for Father Smith and St. Augustine School. “That’s literally what we try (to do) every day,” the priest said.