Legacy of faith of St. Cyprian, historic African American parish in Washington, remembered on its 125th anniversary
Nov 26, 2019
A plaque on the corner of C Street, South Carolina Avenue and 13th Street in Southeast Washington, D.C., commemorates the location of St. Cyprian Church, once a landmark of faith in that neighborhood.
The plaque’s inscription closes with the words, “May the memory of St. Cyprian’s history ever remain as a testament to the goodness of the Lord and the living faith of Black Catholics of Southeast Washington.”
That parish, founded in 1893, merged with nearby Holy Comforter Parish in 1966. St. Cyprian’s church and school buildings were torn down five years later.
St. Cyprian’s history was commemorated in a special way on Sept. 15, 2019, as parishioners of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, joined by their pastor, Msgr. Charles Pope, marked the end of a year-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of St. Cyprian Parish with a Mass on the feast of St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage in north Africa who was an influential writer and teacher of the faith and who is now regarded as one of the Fathers of the Church. St. Cyprian was martyred in 258 A.D. The main celebrant at the liturgy was Bishop John Ricard, a former pastor at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish and the bishop emeritus of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida who now serves as the superior general of the Josephites religious order that staffed the parish for many years.
Then about 350 guests gathered to remember St. Cyprian Parish’s legacy of faith at a 125th anniversary luncheon at Camelot by Martin’s in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. On display were an altar cross from St. Cyprian Church; a photo of Msgr. James Matthews, St. Cyprian’s founding pastor who served there from 1893-1934; and a framed picture of the church. A table with photos showed various scenes of life at St. Cyprian Church and School over the years, including First Communions, girls and boys basketball teams, children praying the rosary with an Oblate Sister of Providence, altar servers, a dance, CYO teen club, a children’s orchestra and a May crowning.
The master of ceremonies, Marcellus Shepard – a syndicated radio host -- welcomed the guests, saying, “As heirs to a storied legacy of faith with its perseverance, we gather today to say ‘thank you.’” He thanked the Lord for sustaining the faith of that community, and he then said, “Thank you, Oblate Sisters, who taught us, loved us and prepared us for the world beyond St. Cyprian.” He also thanked the present parish’s forebears in the faith, “whose shoulders we stand on.” Shepard added, “This is our legacy, this is our story. Today, give God the glory.”
Then Reginald Wills, a descendant of one of the founding families of St. Cyprian Parish, gave a presentation on its history. He noted that the parish’s founders “brought with them their strong and unwavering faith in God and their belief in the Catholic Church.”
He noted that Black Catholics who faced discrimination in seeking jobs and housing in the nation’s capital could not enter the same doors as white Catholics at St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, where they had to sit in the back of the church and were not allowed to be baptized or married at its main altar.
Father Matthews, then an associate pastor at St. Peter’s, served the Black Catholics there, and he was named St. Cyprian’s first pastor when Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons established St. Cyprian Parish in 1893. One year earlier, the Oblate Sisters of Providence began teaching the Black Catholic children there.
Speaking of their effort to found their parish and start their school, Wills said, “This achievement by the faithful Black Catholics was truly a miracle.” In 1893, ground was broken for St. Cyprian Church, and many parishioners volunteered their own labor to help build the church. “It was truly a labor of love that built this magnificent place of worship,” said Wills. The church, made of Potomac bluestone, opened its doors in 1894. “St. Cyprian became the pride and joy of the Black Catholic community, not only in Capitol Hill, but in all of Washington, D.C.,” Wills said.
Wills noted that over the years, St. Cyprian’s had an annual carnival that included a parade, and the St. Cyprian choir had a standard of excellence that today’s choir at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish continues. During World War II, 100 men from St. Cyprian Parish served in the armed forces.
He noted that St. Cyprian Catholic Church and School “helped establish a black middle class,” with parishioners and school graduates serving in a variety of professions, including as businessmen and women and lawyers.
Wills expressed gratitude for the sacrifices and accomplishments of St. Cyprian’s parishioners over the years. “We owe a great debt to our ancestors who built this parish with blood, sweat and tears, and prayers,” he said.
Then Shepard, noting that the “Oblates were the bedrock of our parish,” introduced one of the speakers, Sister Rita Michelle Proctor, the superior general of the Oblate Sisters of Providence who in 1965 graduated from St. Cyprian School.
“Today is a wonderful day,” said Sister Rita Michelle. She jokingly noted that people were attending the luncheon instead of watching the Washington Redskins football team play the Dallas Cowboys that afternoon, a game that the Cowboys went on to win, 31-21. “It is good to see you today. You have chosen the better part,” she said.
Reflecting on that special milestone for St. Cyprian Parish, Sister Rita Michelle said, “Happy anniversary, everybody… God has brought you a mighty long way.”
St. Cyprian’s anniversary, she said, marked “125 years of praising God and being of service to God’s people. It may be in a different building with a different name,” but the spirit of parishioners “is ever present.”
“Congratulations to you for holding onto your name, your identity, your traditions,” she said, adding, “Faith really catapults us to know the unbelievable is believable.” Then repeating the words of the famous spiritual sung in many African American churches, Sister Rita Michelle said, “You’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word...”
She noted how the Oblate Sisters of Providence continue the work of their foundress, Mother Mary Lange, whose cause for sainthood is under consideration.
“Mother Mary Lange, our foundress, was truly a woman of vision and courage and profound trust in God,” said Sister Rita Michelle.
Before becoming the first superior of the Oblate sisters in 1828, leading the first Catholic religious order established by women of African descent, Mother Lange had begun her pioneering work of teaching children of color in Baltimore, Maryland. Sister Rita Michelle noted that four Oblate sisters were assigned to teach at the future St. Cyprian’s School when classes were first offered in a home in 1892, and eight sisters were serving there when the school’s doors closed in 1965.
“The Oblate Sisters never abandoned St. Cyprian School or Parish,” she said.
Sister Rita Michelle, noting that she has been an Oblate Sister for 50 years, said, “My own vocation originated in my family and was nurtured in the walls of St. Cyprian School and Church. All seven kids in our family were sent to Catholic school. We were truly blessed.”
Speaking of her gratitude for the education she received at St. Cyprian School, Sister Rita Michelle said, “I remember all the names of my teachers and principals, and I hope you do, too. Each one helped me grow spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.”
She said as a sixth grader, she began thinking of becoming a sister herself someday, inspired by the example of the Oblate Sisters there, who she said instilled a love of God in students and provided them with an education to help them meet the challenges in society.
“Fifty years later, I stand before you saying I can look back and see God working in my life,” said Sister Rita Michelle.
Speaking of the experiences of St. Cyprian’s parishioners through its history, and the continuing faith of those in Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish, she said, “I am confident that through it all, you’ve learned to trust in Jesus.”
Then senior citizens who had been St. Cyprian parishioners and who have been longtime members of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish spoke. Doris Edelin said being a parishioner at St. Cyprian deepened her faith. “At the time St. Cyprian closed in 1966, I was prefect of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” she said, adding that the Sodality continues its work in the merged parish. “When the plaque for St. Cyprian was laid, I was president of the parish council,” she said, adding, “St. Cyprian Parish and School are alive in our hearts… I thank Msgr. Pope for his support in keeping the legacy of St. Cyprian Church as part of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish. Today is a great day in honor of our ancestry.”
Then Plater Campbell spoke, noting that he was born in 1928, one year after his parents moved to Washington, D.C. He noted how his father as a member of St. Cyprian Parish was a daily Mass goer.
“To this day, I still go to Mass ‘most every day,” said Campbell.
Campbell noted how his father was an active member of the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul Society helping the poor. Year later, Campbell volunteered visiting prisoners at the D.C. Jail, continuing that legacy of service.
St. Cyprian Parish, and later Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish, “have made me, in many respects, who and what I am today,” Campbell said.
Then Msgr. Pope read a letter from Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory, who wrote, “With you, I give thanks to God for the blessings and legacy of strong faith the founding members of St. Cyprian left this archdiocese. For, by God’s grace, their faith was resilient despite racial discrimination in the very Church they loved.” Archbishop Gregory also noted, “Despite a painful merger and the loss of those (St. Cyprian) buildings, the combined parish of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian has continued to be a shining example of vibrant faith and worship, reflecting the experience and gifts of African American Catholics.”
Before offering a closing prayer, Msgr. Pope also praised parishioners for their steadfast faith, saying that legacy, “that tenacity of faith, endures despite the trials and scandals in the Church. May we work just as hard as our ancestors to hand it (the faith) on to those who follow us.”
(Josephine von Dohlen contributed to this story.)
The latest local and global Catholic news delivered to your inbox.