St. Augustine’s Parish: A Washington, D.C. Success Storyby Msgr. Richard Burton
In a recent workshop titled Pastoring in African American Parishes VII, Dr. Andrew Billingsley from the University of Maryland observed that the institution of slavery was ended not so much by presidential decree as by the slaves themselves. Even though the African people brought to the Americas were enslaved, they nevertheless knew who they were and from whence they came and generated the internal resources to free themselves.
At the same workshop, the noted Black historian, Cyprian Davis, OSB. emphasized this important point in a different way. “Black leadership,” he said, “came from the Black laity.” A cogent example of this was Thomas Wyatt Turner, who organized the “Committee for the Advancement of Colored Catholics, which later became the “Federated Colored Catholics.” This group of courageous, dedicated Catholic laity pressed for Black clergy and for Black admittance to The Catholic University and, in general, kept Rome and the American bishops aware of racism in the Church.
The existence of the Black lay congresses was largely due to the inspiration, perspiration, and preparation of Black Catholic laity. Spearheaded by such men as Charles H. Butler, the first of these five historic congresses was held at St. Augustine Church, Washington, D.C., in January 1889. Thus, the ministry of this parish is closely intertwined wit lay initiative.
As far back as 1800, Black Catholics in the Washington area were single-minded in their efforts to form their own parish. Interestingly enough, it was President Abraham Lincoln himself who held a strawberry festival on the grounds of he White House to raise money for the establishment of a Black parish, St. Matthews. St. Matthews flourished as did the school, St. Martin de Porres, which opened in 1858. It is from these roots that the “first St. Augustine’s” came to be. Canonically established as a parish in 1865, the cornerstone of what was to be a truly grand Gothic-style church was not laid until July 14, 1874. Seating some twelve hundred people, the beauty and grandeur of he church were symbolic of Black Catholic pride and clearly remained so until 1947 when the property was sold.
A new St. Augustine’s, with school, rectory, and convent was erected the following year, and the parish thrived. In September 1961, however, the faithful of St. Augustine’s were merged with the parish community of St. Paul. Understandably disturbed by what they perceived as diocesan hubris, the community of St. Augustine, with characteristic commitment to their faith, effected a smooth merger with St. Paul’s, creating a St. Paul/St. Augustine parish. The merger was clearly fortuitous, for in a few years a revitalized parish was call St. Augustine’s.
A conscious effort has been made by the parish to preserve its history; to that end, the parish has established an archive room and hired an archivist to oversee the historic materials.
St. Augustine’s today is in many ways a model parish of committed, dynamic Catholic lay leadership. The parish’s focus on liturgical worship, parish ministry, and social outreach provides ample opportunity for lay involvement and leadership.
One notes immediately the care and attention given to the various liturgical celebrations, which effectively involve the parish family and encourage a broad range of lay participation. The ministry of the word is enhanced by the ministry of song rendered by an outstanding Gospel choir numbering more than seventy-five members. A young adult choir also provides ample opportunities for parish involvement.
St. Augustine’s is rich in multigenerational parish ministries. There is an outreach to the young, to families, to single parents, and to the elderly. Family retreats and marriage encounters are also important aspects of ministry. The after-school African American cultural program addresses the needs of the pre-teens with the Aesop-Nia Program. A very successful RCIA program, directed to adults and children, has been a valuable training ground for lay leadership. Indeed, each of the ministries is spearheaded by a strong, committed group of lay people. The social ministry of St. Augustine’s is under the direction of a full-time outreach minister. Over the years, the parish has been the home base for such dynamic organizations as the Young Christian Workers, which, for a period of five or six years, played a major role in expanding Catholic social action. The parish was also the spiritual home to Friendship House, an organization whose efforts were directed to building sensitivity between diverse social groups. Out of these organizations emerged a strong cadre of African American leaders who together with their pastors were indefatigable in their efforts to combat racism. The integration of that powerful women’s parish group, the Sodality Union of Washington, and the integration of the Catholic Youth Organization were clearly the combined efforts of lay and parochial leadership.
The history of St. Augustine represents lay empowerment at its best. Dynamic Catholic men and women have reorganized the compelling need to share their faith and their vision of what it means to be truly Black and truly Catholic. Perhaps it is also safe to suggest that the pastors who have served at St. Augustine’s over the years, men like Olds, Mudd, Dillard, Kemp, and Bouchard, have in some measure found their source of inspiration and drive for social justice in the lives and examples of those intrepid Black lay leaders like Thomas Wyatt Turner, who organized the Federated Colored Catholics, and Charles H. Butler, who was instrumental in convening the first Black Catholic Lay Congress.
Stories of St. Augustine’s involvement in the neighborhood, in the marketplace, and in world affairs abound. These accounts are a tribute to the zeal and commitment of a long line of African American lay leaders, their pastors, and their flocks who labored so diligently to preserve St. Augustine’s — the Capital’s oldest Black Catholic Church.