On Jan. 17, 1946, the legal counsel for the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that the archdiocese had sold St. Augustine’s Church on 15th Street between L and M streets in Northwest Washington, D.C. Although it was claimed that the archdiocese had no idea who the buyer was, it was not long before it was revealed that the purchaser was The Washington Post Company. After more than 50 years in their wonderful Gothic building, St. Augustine’s Church was in a severe state of disrepair. The building had been deemed unrepairable.
The sale of their church building was the end of a nearly 20-year period of decline for the parish. In 1905 news stories had called St. Augustine’s the largest Black Catholic parish in the United States. The parish counted leaders of the burgeoning Civil Rights and social justice movements among its parishioners. As the Archdiocese of Baltimore opened a series of new African American parishes in the District of Columbia in the 1920s, those who had been parishioners at St. Augustine’s began to attend churches closer to home. The lower number of parishioners also meant less money coming into the parish at a relatively prosperous time.
However, planning to expand the school and to build a new church and convent continued despite the decreasing numbers. Finding adequate property in the city of Washington in their neighborhood was challenging.
The pastor, Father Alonzo Olds, found one parcel on 13th Street only to have the sale fall through. He next found a more than adequate piece up 15th Street between R and S Streets. The only problem was the price, which was nearly $100,000. Though he was warned by Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore about the price and the amount of debt that the parish would potentially be taking on, Olds bought the parcel anyway. He also sold the present school lot on a contract that the seller would pay the parish for the next three years.
Father Olds also contracted with architect Maurice Moore to design a new church, rectory, school, and convent on the larger parcel. It was a beautiful indoor and outdoor integrated design in the Tudor Gothic style. All of this took place in the fateful year of 1929.
As the economy began to crash in the fall of 1929, Olds continued to tell Archbishop Curley that everything was still fine. Soon the buyer of the old school property defaulted on the note. It took some time to find another buyer and then at a substantially lower price. The parishioners like many other Americans during the ensuing Great Depression suffered from loss of jobs. The school and convent section of the plan were built by Moore along with the basement of the church which was used as an auditorium and parish center.
The 15th Street elevation drawing of St Augustine’s Church, convent and school entrance by architect Maurice Moore completed in 1929. The convent and school were built, but the church was never completed. (Drawing from the Archives of the Archdiocese of Washington)
Father Olds kept borrowing money to pay for these improvements and then to pay the payments on the loans. But the parish had incurred so much debt that Olds had to go to the archbishop for assistance. Archbishop Curley was able to get all the loans that Olds had taken out refinanced, but the parish was almost $500,000 in debt, which today would equate to nearly $10 million. Archbishop Curley told Father Olds that he was so much in debt that whenever they would be able to sell St. Augustine’s Church, all the proceeds would go toward the debt.
Since all of the money paid by the Washington Post Company for the church went to retiring the debt, there was no money left to complete the new church. Once the lot was sold, the parish was given a year to vacate the property and take anything they wanted before the church was demolished. The last Mass in was held at midnight on Christmas Eve 1946.
The next morning all Masses were held in the auditorium north of R Street. Other than moving some of the items that the parish wished to keep, very little else happened over the course of year. The priests actually moved into a rented apartment.
Father Olds’ health was also not good. He had to take time off and let his assistants run the parish during this transition. In 1949, after the Archdiocese of Washington had separated from Baltimore in 1947 after the death of Archbishop Curley, Father Olds asked new Washington Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle if he could retire due to health reasons, and the archbishop granted his request. Archbishop O’Boyle appointed Father George Gingras to be the new pastor. It would be Father Gingras who would work to begin rebuilding the parish despite the issues with its physical plant.
In 1961, a financial settlement was reached between the Archdiocese of Washington and the Archdiocese of Baltimore in which Baltimore agreed to pay off all of St. Augustine’s remaining debt. St. Augustine’s then merged with the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, its near neighbor at 15th and V streets, N.W. St. Paul’s had been nearest white parish during segregation and largely unwelcome to St. Augustine’s parishioners. The name of the combined parish was changed to Saints Paul and Augustine, blurring the history of these two very different groups.
Msgr. Gingras remained as pastor and continued his work expanding the parish. During the 1960s, V Street around Saints Paul and Augustine Parish became a center for Civil Rights and justice work in the city. In 1982, Archbishop James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington, decreed that the parish could return to its original name, St. Augustine’s. Through this name change the parish was able to fully regain its legacy as the mother church of Black Catholics in Washington.
(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)