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St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church was organized May 10, 1820. Some of the original members included Rev. William Matthews, Daniel Carroll of Duddington, William Brent, James Hoban, Nicholas L. Queen, James Scallan, Ed. Mattingly, James Spratt, and James Barry. The church building, erected in 1821, after being enlarged from time to time, was torn down in 1889. The present granite and marble building was erected on the site of the old church, at the corner of Second and C Streets SE; it was dedicated November 23, 1890.

A Church Near The Capitol And How It Grew

On seeing St. Peter’s Church so close to the United States Capitol, one naturally wonders if the two were ever part of a common piece of property. A look at the records assures that they were, and turns up two intriguing bits of history to set the stage for the story of St. Peter’s.

In May, 1664, the colonial Maryland land grant office issued a patent for a 400 acre tract covering the Capitol Hill area. It went to a whimsical gentleman called Francis Pope. He called his tract “Rome” and a stream at the foot of the hill the “Tiber.” Thus he could say that “Pope was at home at Rome by the Tiber.” Later many local residents, George Washington among them, thought the name Tiber was too pretentious and called it Goose Creek. But the name Tiber stuck, and the stream exists by that name today, underground (where it cost taxpayers millions as engineers struggled to divert it from the foundations of the Rayburn House Office Building).

In 1670 the ground on the top of the hill was acquired by a pioneer Catholic settler of Maryland, Thomas Notley. In honor of the ancient Benedictine foundation in Dorsetshire, England, his ancestral home, Notley named the property Cerne Abbey Manor.

Thus St. Peter’s found itself on a site named once for the seat of Catholicism and again for a place trod by storied medieval monks; all this in addition, of course, to being in the very cockpit of national history.

From another standpoint, St. Peter’s can now be seen as a “mother of churches” in the city of Washington. Within what was once the parish boundaries are located St. Dominic’s St. Joseph’s, St. Teresa’s, Holy Comforter, Church of the Assumption, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Francis Xavier, and parts of St. Aloysius, St. Martin, and St. Francis de Sales.

The parish boundaries in 1853, before the first ground was taken away, were deemed as from Tiber Creek to the Navy Yard and from the Canal to the Eastern line of the District.

The parish limits embraced a distinctly Catholic settlement long before Congress gave the first President the mission to provide a permanent seat for the Federal government.

In 1794 it was hoped that a church would be built to accommodate the Catholics who lived around the Navy Yard, the Arsenal, and Capitol Hill. A Catholic college on the site of what is now Capitol Hill was suggested but vetoed, because it was too far out in the country from Georgetown.

It was a long way from the southeastern part of the city to St. Patrick’s, the first Catholic church in the District. The only access for people beyond the Anacostia River was the “Old Burnt Bridge” at the foot of Pennsylvania Avenue. The 11th Street Bridge wasn’t built until the year St. Peter’s was erected.

It is believed a church was begun in the early 1810s on South Capitol Street, for, in 1801, Bishop Carroll asked the President for permission to build a church on South Capitol between N and O Streets SW. But the structure was never completed for lack of funds.

An 1801 letter to Archbishop John Carroll from Notley Young states;

“… I have been repeatedly solicited by many virtuous Catholics, living near the Navy Yard, to open a subscription for the erection of Christ Church on the present foundation. The petitioners have unanimously assured me that three thousand dollars can be immediately collected for this purpose from Catholic gentlemen who reside within or about the Yard… And this sum, according to the calculations of Capt. Hoban, is nearly sufficient to complete the building...

“…They requested me on Sunday last to make their humble petition to you; not only for themselves, but likewise in favor of the poorer classes of Catholics in that end of the city. And truly the distress of some for want of spiritual assistance is great beyond conception.”

Finally on May 19, 1820, steps were taken to erect a church east of the Capitol.

Appointed to receive subscriptions for the church was a committee with such influential names as Father William Matthews, pastor of St. Patrick’s; Daniel Carroll of Duddington, William Brent, nephew of the late Archbishop Carroll; James Hoban, architect of the White House; Nicholas L. Queen, James Spratt, and James D. Barry.

The committee within a week obtained 220 subscribers to the church building program but was not satisfied with this small number.

On May 20, Daniel Carroll, the chairman, wrote to Archbishop Ambrose Marechal of Baltimore pressing the committee’s view that donations would come easier if a parish priest were appointed to help them:

“Most Reverend Sir: A subscription has been opened by your authority to raise money for the building of a Catholic Church under the direction and management of a committee of nine ... as you will see by the enclosed, which is a copy of the heading of a subscription paper. … The committee fear that a sufficient amount cannot be raised by them in this way but they are confident that if you would appoint a Clergyman for the intended Congregation, who would aid them in their efforts to obtain donations, etc., they would certainly succeed.”

The first pastor appointed to St. Peter’s was the Rev. James F. M. Lucas. Father Lucas was born in Rennes, France and had been pastor of the Catholic church in Norfolk, Va., before coming to St. Peter’s on September 3, 1821.

Three days after his arrival from Baltimore, Father Lucas wrote a letter to the Archbishop giving him a firsthand account of his meeting with the parishioners.

“I give you some interesting details. Monday, at 6 o'clock, I left Baltimore. At noon I was with the respectable Mr. Matthews (Father Matthews) who welcomed me in the most friendly way and spoke with me openheartedly.

“‘I am, he said, ‘wholly satisfied with Mgr. the Archbishop’s choice; I feared he might send us an Irishman.’”

“He gave me very useful details and wise counsel which I purpose to follow. He presented me to the Revd. Mr. Hickey’s brother, who fetched me to his mother’s house near the Capitol, where I am residing. In the evening, I journeyed to the Navy Yard to visit Comre. Cassin and family; they presented me to several of their friends. Afterwards I called with Mr. Hickey on Mr. Carroll, to whom I delivered your gracious letter: he received me most courteously.

“Today I dined with him with two Mbrs. of the Committee. We have been to see the chapel or Church, with which I am well pleased, but which will not soon be finished; I hope, however to put it shortly in condition to permit of saying Mass in it.

“All earnestly desire me to officiate in it as soon as possible ... Please tell me if there would be any impropriety in my saying Mass there before you come to bless it solemnly, I shall be careful to say a simple blessing (Benedictio Loci).”

“The Irish gentlemen seem very content and wish me to relieve them of the burden of construction etc, because the members of the committee do not get on very well, some favoring one plan, others another and some have resigned.

“I see the whole extent of the undertaking with which I am charging myself: the labor and fatigue will be great and there will be no remuneration until our debt shall be paid; three thousand four hundred dollars in three years. Nevertheless, since you have been good enough to choose me, I decline neither the worry nor the labor, but take them up with good heart.”

Daniel Carroll donated three lots on which the church was built. These lots, located at the southwest corner of 2nd and C Streets, SE, had a frontage of 125 feet on C Street, and 85 feet, 8 inches on 2nd Street. Later three additional lots were purchased.

A city block bounded by 4th, 5th, H and I Streets NE, was donated to the parish by Mr. Nicholas Young to be used as a graveyard. When it ceased to be used for burials, the land reverted to the family who again donated it to St. Peter’s.

The first pastor of St. Peter’s rendered a notable contribution to the Church in this section by combating the abuse of “trusteeism,” a problem which plagued the Church in the last days of the episcopate of Archbishop Carroll.

In those days, the Church allowed those who contributed to the upkeep of a parish to have a say in the dispersal of the parish funds through a board of trustees. These trustees were in no way empowered to interfere in the spiritual jurisdiction of the church.

The system had the advantages of relieving the pastor of having to appeal for funds from the altar, protecting him from the charge of being a money-seeker, and supplying a bond between priest and congregation. Problems arose when trustees decided to ignore the authority of the bishop.

Trusteeism was gradually abolished in the United States; the first national rule to curb the system was passed in 1829.

The trustee system plagued St. Peter’s in its early days, as the following from a letter written by one of the trustees shows:

“ ... We can in all surety refuse the archbishop what he asks, and Mr. (Father) Lucas can go if he pleases, we shall have another priest who will not ask so dear. Mr. (Father) Matthews has told us that Jesuit priests are satisfied with $150 or $140 a year ...”

Archbishop Marechal had written the trustees to procure for the pastor “if not the comforts of life, at least its necessaries.” He suggested that a third or a quarter of the pew rent be given the pastor for his support.

The committee had been collecting all pew rents and using the money to pay off the notes against the trustees. Father Lucas was forced to spend all his meager savings, sell his furniture and books, and finally give up his rectory and move in to the home of Mr. Lowe who lived on New Jersey Avenue, between L and M Streets, a long walk from the church. For his food and clothing he was forced to solicit funds from among the laborers of the Navy Yard.

The Archbishop’s request for a portion of the pew rent for the pastor was voted unanimously by the trustees as “inexpedient.” Not satisfied with the trustees’ reply, the Archbishop called another meeting at which the trustees passed resolutions to charge each pewholder an additional sum and demand payment for the pastor from non-pewholders. They also promised that the pew rents would be paid the pastor as soon as he assumed the debts of the church.

The trustees also thought Father Lucas demanded too much money to run the parish. The sum of $454.37 was required to run the church from its opening in 1821 to 1824.

Father Lucas, with no money, was not in a position to assume the parish debt; sick from the struggle he announced on Sunday, July 25, 1824 that he was leaving and the church would be closed. Things then changed.

That same day some of the congregation went to Daniel Carroll, chairman of the committee, and obtained from him a statement that as soon as debts of parish were paid he would immediately turn over the property to the Archbishop. Twenty of the parishioners agreed to be responsible for the parish debt, with Father Lucas in charge of all. Daniel Carroll, who had led the move to send the pastor away, was one of these.

On August 23, 1824, Father Lucas sent to the Archbishop the recorded deed of conveyance with an accompanying note: “I rejoice with Your Grace that after three years struggle, things have at last come to a happy end.”

If the bell in the tower of St. Peter’s has a note of urgency — it seems to say “Only seven minutes left before Mass!” and “Seven o’clock, time to rise!” — this is only natural. The bell was obtained in the 1850’s from a Baltimore volunteer fire company and donated to St. Peter’s by Thomas Bayne and John Fitzpatrick.

After the trusteeship matter was settled at St. Peter’s, Father Lucas resigned as pastor in 1829 and joined the Jesuits, making his novitiate at Georgetown College. His departure is described as causing a gloom to descend over the congregation.

The original church was an extremely plain building. There was no attempt at display either inside or out. Constructed of red brick with a shingle roof and a pebble-dash façade, the church had a straight stairway leading up from the street to the door in the center of the facade.

The interior was as simple in design. A part of the sanctuary was partitioned off and used as a sacristy. The pulpit was built so high that the speaker could almost look into the gallery where the “colored” (as it was then termed) parishioners sat. The windows were made of small panes of unstained glass and no provision at all was made for heating the building.

Before Father Lucas left the parish he started a subscription drive to build a rectory. Up to this time he had boarded in private homes, a mode of life inconvenient for pastor and parishioners.

For a time he boarded with Mr. Lowe, the architect of the church. He also lived in the old Diggs Home, on the southeast corner of 2nd and D Streets SE, where Providence Hospital later stood.

The rectory was built on the church property to the north of the church. The unpretentious dwelling, made of red brick, had two small rooms on the first floor, and a small attic or garret room on the second floor. A small frame room was attached to the building for use as a kitchen. The house was connected with the church and there was a doorway connecting the garret room with the gallery of the church.

Father Lucas slept on a cot in one of first floor rooms and Father Matthew Deagle, his assistant and the second pastor, occupied the loft.

It is said that Father Deagle’s death in 1831 was due to “painter’s colic,” which he contracted one night from sleeping in the freshly painted loft. He died the following day.

The Rev. James Hoerner was the third pastor. During his pastorate it is recorded that the first parish horse was bought, in 1832.

Rev. Edward A. Knight
Dec 1851-Sep 1862

After brief pastorates by the Reverends Hoerner, Peter Schieiber, and Peter Velmans, the Rev. Joseph Van Horsigh was appointed and served from 1834 to 1849. Father Van Horsigh raised funds for a new rectory and erected a sacristy as well as a school room west of the church.

The Rev. Edward A. Knight, a native of Maryland and a convert, was named pastor in 1851. Before coming to St. Peter’s he had been vice president of St. Mary’s College in Baltimore until the college was dissolved. He then retired from the Sulpician Order and came to St. Peter’s. Father Knight, at his own expense, enlarged the church, adding confessionals, choir gallery, and belfry.

Old St. Peter’s RectoryIt was not until after the Civil War that St. Peter’s parish began its parochial school.

Mr. Thomas Bayne, an early convert in the parish, inspired by the pastor, the Rev. Francis Boyle, donated the land for the school. Erected in 1867, the building was in the form of a rectangle, 46 feet wide, 113 feet long. There was a low basement, a high-ceiling first floor, and an auditorium on the second floor. The school stood on a hill facing E Street on the north side between Third and Fourth Streets SE.

Daniel Carroll had proposed the parish school back in 1826 in a letter to Archbishop Marechal:

“The contemplated school is situated midway between Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard, two of the most populous parts of our city, with the situation of which I presume you are acquainted — in these two parts are many Catholic girls, daughters of respectable mechanics and persons in the humble walks of life, whose small pittance precludes their becoming boarders in the institution at Geo. Town, and the distance debarred them of the privileges of day-scholars.”

Two Sisters of the Holy Cross arrived in 1868 to teach at the school and took up residence at 131 C Street SE. It was an everyday occurrence to see the nuns climb down a ladder to the cellar to stoke the furnace so that the pupils might be kept warm.

The school was rebuilt in 1923 but by the 1930’s it was so crowded classes were held in the hallways. After the fire department protested these conditions, the present school was built.

St. Cecilia’s Academy was also built during the pastorate of Father Boyle. Sister Ambrose of the Holy Cross Sisters opened the Academy on the Feast of St. Cecilia in 1868, in the house at 131 C Street SE. St. Cecilia’s later moved to 601 East Capitol Street, and in time merged with other schools to form Archbishop Carroll High School. The property was sold to the Library of Congress in 1991.

The Parish saw its first consecration of a bishop in 1885, when the Rev. Jeremiah O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Peter’s from 1878 to 1885, was consecrated there as Bishop of Mobile, Alabama.

By this time it was clear to everyone that the church had served its usefulness. Under the direction of the new pastor, the Rev. James O’Brien, demolition of the church was begun on Easter Monday, 1889, and by the following Easter the priests were able to celebrate Mass in the basement of the new church. By Christmas of the same year, Mass was said in the church proper.

Laying 	of the cornerstone 1889Cardinal Gibbons blessed the foundations of the new church. Built of Maryland stone, the church had a seating capacity of 950 and had a spire 140 feet high. In the sanctuary were 12 windows made of the finest French glass.

By the turn of the century the rectory needed rebuilding. Father O’Brien let the contract for the present house in 1901. Archbishop Curley visited the rectory and called it one of the finest in Washington and added he would like to have it for a home.

The 100th anniversary of St. Peter’s and the golden jubilee of Monsignor O’Brien were noted in June, 1920. As a memorial of the twofold anniversary, parishioners contributed funds for the installation of electricity in the church and rectory.

In 1922 Monsignor O’Brien’s health failed and upon his retirement the Archbishop sent his chancellor, the Rev. Eugene J. Connelly, as pastor.

A five-alarm fire destroyed St. Peter’s on March 17, 1940, three days after Easter. The first alarm was turned in at 10: 13 a.m., and there was a general alarm calling all off-duty firemen to the scene at 10:50.

The 	fire of March 27, 1940 and its aftermathCaused by a spark from a blowtorch being used to remove paint from the clerestory windows, the fire was located in the attic, sealed in by a slate roof above and by plaster below.

Answering the fire were 40 pieces of apparatus and 160 firemen. Over 100 policemen were assigned to duty in the area.

The Reverends Charles W. Nelson and Frances E. Sullivan, assistants, hurried to the sanctuary, removed the sacred vessels, and took them to the chapel of the convent. The pastor, Monsignor Connelly, directed volunteers in removing vestments from the sacristy.

A hole was broken in the roof in an attempt to get the hose playing into the attic but there was such a burst of flame the men were ordered down. The fire had to be fought from the street and the rectory roof.

Falling slate loosened by the fire and the high pressure hose, as well as the dense smoke, injured five firemen, who were taken to Providence Hospital.

The same evening Foundry Methodist Church took up a collection for St. Peter’s. The pastors of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church offered their churches for the use of St. Peter’s. However, it was decided to hold services in the school.

After the shock of the fire, it was decided to build a fireproof church and new furnishings. The old altar railing was donated to the Holy Face Church, in Great Mills, Maryland.

Rebuilding of the church began June, 1940 and it was opened Easter Sunday, April 13, 1941. Archbishop Curley presided at the formal opening of the church and the 120th jubilee of the parish, on November 23, 1941.

For length of service to St. Peter’s, consider the remarkable tenure of George F. Harbin as an officer of the parish council of the St. Vincent De Paul Society. At the council’s formation in July, 1864, Harbin was chosen secretary. In 1874 he was elected president. He held that position continuously until his death in August, 1919. For most of that period, Harbin served under a pastor of almost equally long tenure, Msgr. James M. O’Brien, who came to St. Peter’s in April, 1888, and retired in December, 1922.

Then there is the productive stewardship of Rev. Michael J. O’Sullivan, a native of Kilgarvan, County Kerry, Ireland, who served as pastor from November, 1970 until his retirement in July, 2005, in whose name a new ambo was dedicated in 2010.

Busy in the years of World War II, St. Peter’s saw many changes in its surrounding community after the war ended. While the “family” character of the Capitol Hill neighborhood remains on many blocks, others, such as two complete blocks adjoining the church to the north,-have lost their residences to other uses. St. Peter’s, accepting these and other changes, has striven to hold its place as an element of stability and orderly progress in the life of Capitol Hill residents.

[This story of St Peter’s parish is derived from the series of articles, “Our Glorious Heritage,” written for the Catholic Standard newspaper in 1952 by the late Francis de Sales Ryan, and from the Catholic University publication “A History of St. Peter’s Parish,” by Rita Cooksey, with special acknowledgment to Miss Julia E. Diggins, for use of the reminiscences of her mother, Margaret Gertrude Diggins.]