By July of 1864, the city of Washington had spent nearly three years at war. Convalescing and active duty soldiers filled the streets of the city.  General Ulysses S. Grant had just begun his siege of Petersburg, Virginia, which in nine long months would lead to the fall of Richmond.  In order to relieve pressure around Richmond, Confederate General Jubal Early was reconnoitering around Washington looking to invade the city. Early was pushed back into Virginia by July 13 after the Battle of Fort Stevens.  

In the midst of such obvious signs of war, 1,500 people gathered on the grounds around the White House on the 4th of July that year. The weather was cool and pleasant for that time of year, food was sold, music provided, and recitations both romantic and patriotic were given by schoolchildren.  The event was a strawberry festival, a fundraiser for a new school building for the Black Catholic children of St. Matthew’s Parish.  The crowd that day was mixed with both Black and White Catholics attending along with appearances by President Abraham Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.  The event raised $1,200 for the building of the school.  

It has been estimated that St. Matthew’s had as many as 700 Black Catholic parishioners just before the Civil War. These parishioners participated in the life of the parish, though worship and many other activities were segregated. St. Matthew’s Black Catholics also had their own Masses in the basement of the church in addition to occupying the balconies of the upper church. But through the White House fundraiser and others, they raised enough money to build their own small chapel and school on 15th Street, N.W., between L and M streets. St. Matthew’s at that time was located at 15th and H Streets, N.W.   The pastor of St. Matthew’s, Father Charles Ignatius White, worked with his parishioners at the beginning and supported their fundraising. The new chapel was dedicated on Feb. 11, 1866, to Blessed Martin de Porres, who had been beatified by Pope Gregory XVI in 1837.   

It is not clear that all of the Black Catholic Community at St. Matthew’s moved with the completion of the chapel and school, which were in one building.  Father White did not oversee the chapel, though it was still a mission of his parish and, instead, worked with the Dominicans and Jesuits to have someone come and say Mass at the new chapel.  However, the Archdiocese of Baltimore (which then included the city of Washington) and its new leader, Archbishop Martin Spalding, were concerned about the outreach and care to Black Catholics, particularly the large number of people who were formerly enslaved. The archbishop assigned Father Felix Barotti, a missionary priest from Italy, to be the first pastor of the new chapel in 1867.  

Throughout the rest of the 1860s and into 1870s, the number of Black Catholics who attended the chapel increased.  They continued to hold fundraisers such as concerts, picnics, festivals, and lectures to raise money for their school.  The choir at  Blessed Martin de Porres Chapel was considered to be one of the best in the city according to news reports, and it was directed by John Esputa, a Portuguese immigrant who also taught music to a young John Philip Sousa.  These events took place at the chapel, and also in what is today Rock Creek Park, and in other public parks around the District of Columbia.  They went back to the area around the White House in 1873 for a festival that featured a sack race and a display of Italian horses.  

A new building permit for the site of Blessed Martin de Porres Chapel was issued in April of 1873 for the growing congregation.  It was noted in the Evening Star that by October the foundation of the new building, which was being erected adjacent to the existing chapel and school, was progressing rapidly, and it was estimated that the basement would be completed by Christmas of that year.  The new church’s cornerstone was blessed by Pope Pius IX. It was laid with great ceremony by Baltimore Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley on June 14, 1874 in an event attended by more than 7,000 people and all of the Catholic societies in the city.  The new church was dedicated to St. Augustine.  The original chapel and school dedicated to Blessed Martin de Porres was torn down during construction.

This is a photo of the original St. Augustine’s Church in Washington, D.C., that was dedicated in 1876.  (Library of Congress photo)

Today St. Augustine Parish, with its church now located at 15th and V streets, N.W.,  is considered the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital.

(Dr. Jacobe serves as the director of the Archives for the Archdiocese of Washington.)