Funkstown – Historic Gen St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Celebrates 157 Years 

By Frank Leone

On June 9, 2024, Foggy Bottom’s St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (728 23rd St) celebrated its 157th anniversary with D.C. Mayor Murial Bowser as guest speaker, a full church, and a reception afterwards. Founded in 1867, it was the first African American Episcopal church in Washington, D.C., and its multicultural congregation remains predominantly African American. (It is the last of Foggy Bottom’s African American churches.) The church’s current building, constructed in 1886, was designed by James Renwick, whose works include the Renwick Gallery and the Smithsonian Castle, and contains a Tiffany stained-glass window. As noted in the program for the June 9th service: “Over the years, [the church] has grown into a beacon of hope and a cornerstone of spiritual life for countless individuals.”
PHOTO:  St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 23rd St. (F. Leone, June 2024). The entrance to the sanctuary is through the open gatehouse, decorated with terra cotta panels featuring griffins, swirling vines and shields bearing fleurs-de-lis. The gate leads to a courtyard with a St. Mary Shrine. To the north of the gatehouse is the Parish House (b. 1909).
By the Civil War, African Americans could worship at Washington’s Episcopal churches, but were subject to segregation, including being made to sit separately and served communion last. Starting in 1865, African American parishioners sought to establish a church that was free of discrimination. Leaders of St. John’s Episcopal Church (Lafayette Square) and Church of the Epiphany (13th and G Streets) worked to establish a new church, under the jurisdiction of St. John’s. A parishioner of St. John’s donated land in Foggy Bottom as a location for the church. Epiphany parishioner and President Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin H. Santon was able to relocate a chapel attached to Kalorama Hospital to the Foggy Bottom site. This frame chapel was opened for the first Divine Service on the second Sunday in June 1867.
PHOTO:  St. Mary’s Episcopal Church interior (F. Leone June 2024). The chancel has a brass rail and polychrome stenciled walls and is framed by an arch of contrasting brick. The three stained glass windows were manufactured by Lorin in Chartres, France, and depict Saints Tryphena, Simon, and Cyprian. Renwick designed the chancel furniture.
In 1873, the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell became the church’s first full time rector.  Confusion over land titles led Rev. Crummel and most of St. Mary’s parishioners to relocate and in 1879 build the larger St. Luke’s Episcopal Church (1514 15th St.). Nevertheless, Foggy Bottom residents, maintained and slowly expanded St. Mary’s as their church home. And in 1885 the title issue was resolved.

St. John’s parishioner Judge J.C. Bancroft Davis then led the effort to construct a new building. James Renwick, who had renovated St. John’s, completed the brick and timber late Victorian Gothic style church in 1887. The walls are of red and yellow brick and feature Della Robia style Stations of the Cross. The floors are patterned in red marble and encaustic (cement) tile. The pews are of hand-carved oak. The church’s services feature music from its choir and a 110-year old pipe organ. The church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

PHOTO:  The Tiffany glass window in the northeast corner of the church honors Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Staunton and depicts a serene angel holding a bowl marked “Peace.” (D. Vogt, June 2024). The window was commissioned by Mary O. Augusta, the widow of Alexander Augusta , the U.S. Army’s first black physician and, after the Civil War, a professor of medicine at Howard University.
St. Mary’s Church has provided educational and community as well as spiritual services since its founding in 1865. In 1881, its first brick structure was built to house St. Mary’s Industrial School which offered sewing, embroidery, and cooking classes for 182 girls, and parochial and Sunday school classes. Behind the Church is St. Mary’s Court, an affordable apartment community for seniors and persons with accessibility needs, sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and including church members on its the Board of Directors. St. Mary’s other activities include managing a George Washington University Campus Ministry. St. Mary’s 157th anniversary program sets forth its goals: “Let us strive to be a place of inclusivity, a voice for justice, and a source for compassion in our community.”


Sources:  St. Mary’s Episcopal Church website; St. Mary’s Episcopal Church Program, “Celebrating our 157th Anniversary, Honoring out Past, Embracing our Future,” June 9, 2024; Selma Ratner, “Renwick’s Church for Blacks,” Historical Preservation, Vol.4, No. 3, July-Sept. 1972; John Kelly, “It’s sesquicentennial time for St. Mary’s, the historic Foggy Bottom church,” Washington Post, June 12, 2017; E.J. Applewhite, Washington Itself, 2d Ed., 1993; National Park Service, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church National Register Nomination Form, April 2, 1973; St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Memorial Centennial Book (1867-1967), June 11, 1967.