For 150 years, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church has served as a place of refuge and unity on Capitol Hill
Feb 14, 2019
Before there were buildings to house the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, or offices for elected representatives in Washington, D.C., St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stood side by side with the United States Capitol. For 150 years, the church has welcomed anyone who wants to worship, regardless of which side of the aisle they sit on.
In 1868, when the country had just finished the Civil War, St. Joseph’s was founded by a group of German immigrants. A reported crowd of 20,000 people, including President Andrew Johnson, walked past the Capitol and down the street to lay the cornerstone of the church, which was designed to look similar to the cathedral in Cologne, Germany.
Shortly after the parish’s founding, the government began to expand the U.S. Capitol, and the Italian stonemasons doing work on the building began to join the German immigrants for Mass at St. Joseph’s. Mass was no longer only said in German, and the two cultural groups began to unite through their faith.
Unity continues to be a daily endeavor at St. Joseph’s Parish on Capitol Hill, as senators, congressmen, staffers and Supreme Court justices attend daily Mass at the parish alongside other young professionals and parishioners who live in the neighborhood. In March, the parish hosted the first-annual Gold Mass for congressional staffers, who filled the pews.
Deacon Gary Bockweg began attending daily Mass at St. Joseph’s while commuting to Washington from Woodbridge, Virginia to work for the United States Federal Courts. He became more and more involved in the parish, and started even driving into the city from Woodbridge on Sundays to attend Mass. Eventually, he decided it would be best for his family to move into the city, and he bought a house two blocks away from the parish.
It was the community of people “from all walks of life” that really drew Deacon Bockweg into the parish, he said. While most of them were well educated and some were even famous, he recalled how one of the most popular parishioners was a homeless man who slept in front of an Exxon station down the street.
On Ash Wednesday, all of these different people come together to fill the church for three standing-room-only services. St. Joseph’s current pastor, Father William Gurnee – who worked on Capitol Hill for five years before becoming a priest – said he remembers being in the pews for that service, but now enjoys being on the other side of the altar.
“It is so humbling to see these people of great power receiving the ashes and to say to them ‘remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return,’” he said.
While working on the hill, Father Gurnee attended Mass at St. Joseph’s and said the parish’s young adult book club, retreats, and community played a big part in helping his faith grow and ultimately leading him to enter the seminary.
In particular, Father Gurnee remembers how after one terrible day at work, he went to Confession with Msgr. Kevin Irwin, a priest who was in residence at St. Joseph’s. He held back tears as he told the Catholic Standard how he still remembers the words of comfort that priest gave him on that day.
“I think that is sort of emblematic of why St. Joe’s is so important – because we are right here in the neighborhood,” he said. “I was able to just almost walk across the street and come to church and come to receive the sacraments.”
For Mary Margaret Olohan, who works down the street from the parish at Regnery Publishing, the opportunity to attend daily Mass at the parish provides a peaceful mid-day break.
“I try and come pretty much every day. It is really nice just to be able to come up the hill, take a break from the crazy D.C. politics and be with all of these great people here,” she said.
Confessions continue to be heard before the 12:10 p.m. daily Mass, and every day there is a line of people waiting to receive the sacrament. In the midst of a city that is full of “temptations to power and greed and money,” Father Gurnee said St. Joseph’s plays an important part in keeping him and others centered on Christ.
“So many people in this city, and certainly on Capitol Hill, are not from here. They come in, they are lonely, they want to make a connection. They want to feel like they matter, and they want to feel like they can meet Christ here,” said Father Gurnee. “That was crucial for me. It keeps you grounded. It keeps you from going in places you may not want to go.”
After being ordained as a priest, Father Gurnee returned to St. Joseph’s to celebrate his first Mass on June 11, 2000. When he was assigned to St. Joseph’s as pastor in 2017, he said he was “thrilled and scared.”
As a pastor, Father Gurnee makes a point not to be political, because he believes his job is to provide hope for his parishioners rather than to tell them which bill to vote for.
“I try and focus on Christ. I try and teach people so that they can meet and encounter Christ,” he said. “I am talking to them a lot about prayer. I want them to become really good prayers, and when they become good prayers, the virtue of hope comes in with the Holy Spirit.”
During a recent funeral for a former parishioner and senator, the first few pews of the church were full of members and former members of the U.S. Senate, from both political parties, Father Gurnee recalled.
“That is very important that this be a place where they both know that they’re welcome and they can talk to each other or be part of something that unites them when they are in a town that is constantly telling them to be divided,” he said. “So it is very striking when you see two prominent people from different sides of the aisle next to each other.”
Even though he avoids giving political advice from the pulpit, Father Gurnee does hope that the Mass-goers will bring what they receive at Mass back into their workplaces.
“We all come to this town to make a difference,” he said, adding that St. Joseph’s helps people come to realize that the real way they make a difference is through their faith. “…I am so grateful that we have good people that work for our government and they come here every day and they get fed and they get strengthened to go back out there, because we need that.”
Caitlin Affolter works as the director of scheduling for Montana Senator Steve Daines, and said everyone in her office, including the senator, knows to expect that she will be leaving the office around noon to go to Mass. She is also an active member of the parish’s young adult ministry, where she met her now-husband. Affolter said she and other daily Mass-goers appreciate Father Gurnee’s experience working on the Hill.
“He gets it – the craziness business of the day, to go across the street and not have to think about work,” she said, noting his short but sweet homilies. “...He leaves something that sticks in your head that you can bring back to the office and reflect on for the rest of the day.”
The day after the divisive Senate hearing about allegations of sexual assault against now-U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, longtime parishioners and young Hill staffers joined together for 12:10 daily Mass at St. Joseph’s, as protestors stood outside the Supreme Court less than a mile away. During his homily, Father Gurnee told the Mass-goers that even though the person next to them in the grocery store may have completely different political views than them, “they are still a child of God.”
Father Gurnee also told those at the Mass that they are the reason why he calls the parish the “cornerstone” of the neighborhood.
“The fact that you can walk down the street in the middle of the workday, encounter Christ and bring Him back to the workplace…that is exactly why we are here,” he said.
That day, St. Joseph’s served as a refuge, just as it has for the past 150 years. As the United States has grown, as people have moved to and from the city, and as times of tragedy and political turmoil have swirled through the streets of Washington, St. Joseph’s has remained constant, preaching the message of hope in the midst of it all.
“This is one of the things that I think is wonderful about this area,” said parishioner Kay Elsasser, who has lived on Capitol Hill for 45 years. “Sure it is a center of politics, sure it is a center of power, sure there are lots of people that come and go, but there are those of us who remain and those of us who give continuity, and I would say that is also true about this parish. It offers us continuity. It offers us a place of refuge.”
Elsasser and another parishioner, Elsa Thompson, recalled how the parish was there with them through another difficult moment in the country: 9/11. Thompson, who was working in the Capitol at the time, remembers being among the hoards of people who ran out of the building after a message was delivered that there was a plane headed for the Capitol.
“People were pouring out of the buildings and they were pouring into this church,” she said, recalling how when all the other buildings were shutting down, “The church was kept open.”
Elsasser, who was working in the Library of Congress at the time, remembers seeing the crowds running down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“That day, and in fact the month after, was absolutely terrifying,” she said. “I do remember coming and praying here and just being so terrified.”
But for Elsasser, Capitol Hill is more than the sum of the history, politics and power that surrounds it.
“It is my neighborhood. It is my community. It is my support group,” she said. “…Like many, if not most people here, we came from other parts of the country, so we didn’t have relatives here, we didn’t have a support network of aunts and uncles and grandparents and siblings to back us up, and so the people in the neighborhood became our family and still are.”
Many of those people she met at St. Joseph’s while raising her son, and she noted that the friends he made in the parish as a kid have been his friends his whole life. When her husband was sick for many years, it was in the parish and the community that she found strength.
“I would come here sometimes and just pray and pray to have the strength to go on. And I found it,” she said. “And that is probably the greatest gift that this church has given me.”
As the parish celebrates its 150th anniversary, Thompson said she hopes that it can continue to be a refuge, especially for Catholics who may have fallen away from the Church.
“I hope that St. Joseph’s would be a refuge where these young people who have doubts can come to our church and can pray and that we can welcome them,” she said. “Father Gurnee talks about us being a cornerstone; I say a cornerstone and a beacon. A beacon for the young people – and the old people too – for all of us to find Jesus again.”
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.