Oldest Black Catholic Church in D.C. Is Active in Community
The sharp scent of incense and the soothing sound of running water filled the sanctuary as worshippers poured in out of the cold for the 12:30pm Mass. Small children peered over the metal handrails into the large baptismal pool as their parents blessed themselves with Holy Water before taking their seats. The murmuring of prayers echoed off the high walls and ceiling as the orator recited the Holy Rosary in preparation for Mass. This has been the ritual of parishioners of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, located on 15th and V just minutes from the historic U Street, for 150 years. As the self proclaimed “mother church of African American Catholics in the nation’s capital”, St. Augustine is one of the oldest African American Catholic churches in the country. The oldest being St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans. According to their website, the church was originally opened under the patronage of Blessed Martin de Porres as a place of worship for blacks that were not wholly accepted by the mainstream Catholic Church. A small school was also opened and staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, an order of black women dedicated to the education of people of color. The Blessed Martin’s school was in operation 4 years before the mandatory public education of black children became law in Washington, DC. After the Civil War a new church was constructed and dedicated to Saint Augustine of Hippo, the famous son of St. Monica (patron saint of wives and abuse victims), who is the patron saint of brewers. It’s said that St. Augustine converted to Christianity from a life of parties, entertainment and worldly ambitions after 17 years of prayer from his mother. The church was renamed for this African born saint and reopened in 1876. Since then, St. Augustine has made its mark as the premier place of worship among black Catholics in the Washington, DC area. Relatively small as far as Catholic churches usually go, the architecture of the building creates a warm and inviting atmosphere; in sharp contrast to the grandeur most Catholic churches try to create. Sunday Masses are held in the main church while the smaller daily Masses are held in the chapel just down the block. The main church is currently undergoing construction to point and repair the roof. This is just the first stage of major renovations planned for the century and half old church, which include repainting the entire sanctuary. St. Augustine is also busy working on renovating the community with their many social justice and service programs. The HIV/AIDS Ministry provides education services and outreach support for AIDS victims, their families, and friends. Chairs Chester Jones and Barbara Prince have also teamed the ministry up with Food & Friends to deliver food to those suffering from AIDS and other terminal illnesses. When asked what the ministry hopes to accomplish within the community, Jones laughed a little and responded, “To go out of business.” The charity of St. Augustine does not stop there. Along with the food drives throughout the year the church also takes part in Thanksgiving and Christmas food drives, as well as a toy drive during the Christmas season. The Africa and the Diaspora organization aims to keep the parish abreast of social justice issues concerning people of African decent around the world. This group also has sister parishes in Philadelphia, Brazil and South Africa. St. Augustine’s Family Ministry hosts activities and events and groups to strengthen family values and structure. Programs such as Teens Club, Aesop’s Nia and CYO all give the youth of the parish an opportunity to try new things and grow within their faith. Special events will be held throughout the year for the community and church members as the parish commemorates its 150 years of existence.