December 6: Meeting of African-American Communicants (1866)

Following the Civil War, the Washington Episcopal churches set up a new convocation, which had the primary objective of helping to erect new churches for the growing city. The convocation had already taken steps to establish two new churches, St. Paul’s (1866) and Incarnation (1867). On December 6, 1866, a meeting of Epiphany’s African American communicants was the first step in the launching of a church specifically for blacks. Formally, the convocation became their sponsor and for several years served as a funnel for some financial assistance. Epiphany’s rector, Dr. Charles Hall (who was also dean of the convocation), was interested in the meetings of the group and frequently attended them. He led the devotions and advised the group on the formation of a separate congregation. The Rector of St. John’s, Dr. John Lewis, was brought into the conferences with the group. The acquisition of the first church building has been attributed to Dr. Hall. “I was in the office of the Secretary of War, Mr. Stanton (one of Hall’s parishioners), when something led him to mention that there was a chapel attached to Kalorama Hospital (see attached photo), which was about to be taken down and sold for lumber. I asked him to give it to the colored people for a church. He was pleased with the suggestion and offered to have it taken down and rebuilt in the city.” A parishioner of St. John’s offered the use of a lot on 23rd between G and H Streets, N.W. for the relocation of the chapel.

In the new Negro chapel, known initially as St. Barnabas’ Mission but soon thereafter called “St. Mary’s Chapel for Colored People”, the first service was held on the second Sunday in June 1867, with both Dr. Hall and Dr. Lewis officiating. By then, the new body had twenty-nine members including some communicants from other churches who had joined with the nucleus from Epiphany. While beginning as a “non-affiliated mission,” the new chapel being within the metes and bounds of St. John’s came under its physical and spiritual jurisdiction rather than Epiphany’s, and at the outset had a lay reader from St. John’s in charge. But it never became completely attached to St. John’s, and as St. Mary’s it eventually would achieve separate status both as a church and as a parish. As Epiphany celebrates its 175th anniversary in 2017, St. Mary’s is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

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