Holy Redeemer Parish in Washington opens centennial with annex groundbreaking
Dec 16, 2019
As darkness fell on Nov. 23, a crowd of people who had gathered for a special ceremony inaugurating the centennial celebration for Holy Redeemer Parish in Washington, D.C., began to process from behind the church, then up to New Jersey Avenue and onto New York Avenue, holding small glow sticks and singing, “We are Marching in the Light of God.”
That procession to Holy Redeemer Church, said Deacon Willis Daniels, reflected the walk of faith begun by the parish’s founders 100 years earlier, Black Catholics who had gathered to start a church in that neighborhood where they could worship together freely without experiencing discrimination.
Deacon Daniels encouraged the dozens of marchers “to process like our ancestors did, joyfully, reverently (and) proudly…” Choir members helped lead the march and were joined by members of the parish’s Holy Name Society and its Sodality and youth group.
Soon the church was filled for a Mass for the Solemnity of Christ the King, celebrated by Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who congratulated parishioners on the centennial observance, saying, “You’re 100 years old, and you look pretty good for 100!”
Moments earlier during the ceremony behind the church, the archbishop had symbolically turned over some soil with a shovel for a groundbreaking for Holy Redeemer’s planned “Welcome Annex” that will include an elevator offering accessibility for senior citizens and other Massgoers who have difficulty climbing the steps to the church.
Sara Pratt, the parish council president, noted that expansion, supported by a capital campaign, shows that “Holy Redeemer has strong roots. We’re staying here (and) we’re rising here… It’s a signal to the neighborhood we are present and here for them.” In recent years the neighborhood surrounding the parish has become gentrified and more diverse.
Father David Bava -- who is marking his 25th year as Holy Redeemer’s pastor, succeeding the Josephite priests who served the parish for its first 75 years – also spoke at that ceremony, tracing the history of Holy Redeemer Parish. He held a piece of wood salvaged from that site when the church’s foundation was dug, that was a remnant of the horse and carriage stable located there in the early 1900s.
“The foundation is still here – it’s all of you,” he said.
Nine youth from the parish took turns recounting the history of Holy Redeemer, noting the founders included about 200 African-American Catholic families who successfully petitioned Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons to establish a church of their own, after experiencing discrimination at nearby St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, where they had to sit in the balcony and wait to receive Communion after white Catholics. In 1919, they began meeting in the home of Peter Quander to pray and plan for the construction of their church with their first pastor, Josephite Father Francis Tobin.
Praising the faith and determination of those founding families, Father Bava offered context for that point in history, noting how Cameron McWhirter’s book “Red Summer” describes how 1919 was marked by lynchings, anti-black riots and church burnings across the country meant to terrorize and drive out African-Americans from communities.
“The people of color in this neighborhood were not intimidated,” he said.
The first major contribution for the construction of Holy Redeemer Church was an $8,000 donation in 1921 from Mother Katharine Drexel, the Philadelphia heiress and future saint who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to serve Black and Native Americans. Sisters from her order staffed Holy Redeemer School from when it opened in 1954 until 1981. Later Religious of the Sacred Heart and Sisters of the Holy Family from New Orleans, along with lay people, staffed the parish school, which closed in 2010.
Holy Redeemer Church was dedicated in 1922, and by the church’s 25th anniversary in 1947, it had become a major source of evangelization for Black Catholics in the nation’s capital, with the parish having nearly 5,000 members in the years after World War II.
In a letter in the parish’s centennial program booklet, Father Bava noted how one day he discovered a church registry listing the first sacramental entry for the new Holy Redeemer Parish from March 1921. The handwritten entry showed that Charlotte Andrews, then 80 years old, was seeking the sacrament of Confirmation, and in the place in the registry where parents were listed, it simply said, “Born in slavery.”
The priest wrote that documentation “stirred my soul and drove me to a more intent commitment to the people of this parish.”
At the ceremony before the Mass, Father Bava noted that some descendants of Holy Redeemer’s founding families continued to worship there. He explained that today’s parishioners had gathered to pass on that heritage and draw on the faith, determination and strength of the parish’s founders.
That, he said, is “why we’re here on this holy ground.”
Before Archbishop Gregory sprinkled holy water on the site of Holy Redeemer’s planned expansion, he noted that the cold rain sprinkling on the crowd didn’t dampen their spirits.
“Our hearts are filled with warmth and hope,” said the archbishop, who praised the parish’s founders as “pioneers. They were courageous people with big dreams.”
Holy Redeemer Parish, he said, is “blessed by its past, encouraged by its present and hopeful for its future.”
The youth participating in that ceremony reflected that hope, and after they had narrated the historical summary of the parish, they said, “We are the next generation of Holy Redeemer,” and the people gathered there applauded.
In his homily at the Mass for the Feast of Christ the King in the parish named for Jesus as the Holy Redeemer, Archbishop Gregory noted, “This king today ascends a cross which will be his unique throne.”
He said Jesus “came not to save himself, but (to save) us and all those who ever lived.” Today’s faithful are called to reflect Jesus by living lives of selfless love, the archbishop said, adding, “Our Catholic faith leads us to generosity and care for others.”
Prayer intentions at the Mass were offered for the poor, immigrants, refugees and people who are incarcerated. Holy Redeemer has special outreach programs serving homeless people and the homebound elderly and nursing home residents.
After Communion, Archbishop Gregory was presented with a gift from the parish – an icon of Jesus.
Parishioners later gathered in the church hall for a reception. In interviews, some of the guests reflected on what Holy Redeemer Parish means to them.
“It’s a good place to come to worship. You always feel at home, no matter who you are or where you come from,” said Barbara Adams, a retired nurse.
Her friend Alice Jones, who formerly worked as a nurse at Providence Hospital, has been attending Holy Redeemer for nearly a decade. Like some other parishioners, she formerly attended St. Aloysius, which in 2012 ceased being a parish church but continues to serve the Gonzaga College High School community.
Reflecting on Holy Redeemer’s founders, Jones said, “I commend the ones who came before us, who were bound and determined.” Summarizing what today’s parishioners can learn from that legacy, she said, “Work together, stick together and keep the faith.”
One of the speakers at the reception, Deacon Steven Nash, noted that he is “a son of this church,” which his parents, grandparents and their parents also attended. “The Lord called me right through this church… This is home. Holy Redeemer is my home,” said Deacon Nash, who now serves at St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland. The centennial program listed him among eight religious vocations from the parish, including priests, other deacons and women religious.
Another guest at the reception, Yvette Alexander – a former member of the D.C. City Council representing Ward 7 – noted, “This is the church where I was raised. I went to school here.” She said Holy Redeemer has had “a major impact… on how I live my life, putting God first, and then family, and then service.”
Reflecting on the legacy of Holy Redeemer Parish, Alexander said, “This particular church was built by us and for us to worship as a black community. It’s important for us to teach the younger generation about this history and continue this legacy.”
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