Father Patrick Smith, the pastor of St. Augustine Parish, and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl pray during a May 18 Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the parish, which is regarded as the mother church for black Catholics in the nation's capital.
Father Patrick Smith, the pastor of St. Augustine Parish, and Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl pray during a May 18 Mass celebrating the 150th anniversary of the parish, which is regarded as the mother church for black Catholics in the nation's capital.
Born of the efforts of a heroic group of men and women, tracing their history back through 150 years of accomplishments, the St. Augustine Parish community marked their anniversary Trinity Sunday, May 18, with a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Donald Wuerl. Washington's oldest black Catholic church adopted the theme, "Celebrating Our Past, Embracing Our Present, Envisioning Our Future," for the weekend's events that included a Saturday evening gala and a Sunday afternoon procession to the site of the original church, now the Washington Post building.

Archbishop Wuerl acknowledged that, in spite of enduring a great deal of struggle throughout their history, St. Augustine parishioners have "remained firm in their faith and commitment to God, and dedicated to [educating] their children." One need only look around to see evidence of that work, he said.

"We come to gather at a place where we can speak to God Ð to pray, to listen to the teachings of the apostles, to form a community of faith, and to celebrate the Eucharist," said the archbishop in his homily. "We come together here to recognize that for 150 years we have been alive in the spirit, blessed in God... to say today is our moment. Our time as expression of God's family is right here in this parish."

Archbishop Wuerl, was joined by concelebrants, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley and retired Bishop Leonard Olivier, along with St. Augustine's pastor, Father Patrick Smith.

"We remember the past in order to shore us up in the present and send us into the future with a clear focus and purpose," Father Smith wrote in Sunday's parish bulletin, in his sermon notes titled, "Sustaining the Legacy."

St. Augustine's was founded in 1858 as a chapel and school dedicated to Blessed Martin de Porres. Its founders included emancipated slaves and free men and women of color. They started a school four years before mandatory free public education for black children was required by law in the District of Columbia.

St. Augustine was recognized as a parish in 1865, and a new church was built and dedicated in 1876, at 1150 15th Street, today the home of the Washington Post. For nearly a century, the school was staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence. The parish merged with neighboring St. Paul's in 1961 and the congregation worshipped in the former St. Paul's Church, but in the 1980s the parish and church became known as St. Augustine's again. Over the years, parishioners endured slavery, segregation and racism, but they kept the faith.

In acknowledgement of the painful history that relegated black Catholics to the rear seats in Catholic churches, two pews from the church's rear have been symbolically relocated to either side of the altar with commemorative plaques: "These pews for 'Colored Catholics' were originally located in the back of St. Paul's Church. 'Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.' (Matthew 20:16.)"

Archbishop Joseph Henry Ganda of Freetown, Sierra Leone, paid a recent visit to Archbishop Wuerl. The first black from Sierra Leone to be ordained a priest, then a bishop, and finally archbishop there, brought with him a vestment that Archbishop Wuerl accepted on the condition that he would present the chasuble and stole to St. Augustine's pastor as a symbol of dedication and of hopes for the future.

For the school, "This has been extraordinary year," announced the principal, Sister Emmanuela Ladipo, a member of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus. "As we begin a new chapter we continue to flourish, thanks to the dedication of staff and parishioners." Over the past five months, 72 applications have come in, leading to the highest enrollment in a decade," she said, to delighted applause.

Impressively, as the school year ends, all kindergarten students can read and many eighth graders have secured admission to the city's top schools. Details will be announced at the school's June 7 graduation.

Along with delivering an apostolic blessing to the students, teachers, and staff of St. Augustine School, Archbishop Wuerl expressed a "commitment to partnership with the archdiocese... to see that in the future, in this neighborhood, we'll see [continued] dedication to education."

Lifelong parishioner Sylvia Jackson has committed herself to educating Catholic youth after a lifetime of Catholic education. She was a K-8 student at St. Augustine School and attended Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg before enrolling in Trinity College. Inspired to pursue the education field by her third grade teacher, Sister Stephen Beauford, Jackson now enjoys teaching first grade students at St. Mark the Evangelist School in Hyattsville.

In his 11 years as a St. Augustine parishioner, Ben Reynolds has exemplified the spirit that brought about St. Augustine Church. Reynolds has been a member of the Holy Name Society for all 11 years and participated in the Right of Christian Initiation of Adults program for the past eight. He was not yet a convert to Roman Catholicism, though he had been worshipping at St. Augustine for 10 years, when one Sunday he stepped up and began ushering: "I saw a need," he said. "The ushers hadn't arrived yet, and I wanted non-parishioners to know they were welcome."

Reynolds learned a good bit of parish history before he joined, and learned much more throughout this sesquicentennial year, most notably that, "Several times the school had to close throughout history, and that parishioners persevered each time and opened the school again," he said, adding: "Education is one thing we cannot afford to let go Ð as Catholics and as a society on the whole."

This fall, St. Augustine will again operate as a parish school, after being part of the archdiocese's Center City Consortium in recent years. The parish held a 150th anniversary gala dinner dance the night before the Mass, and 700 guests attended the celebration of the parish's ongoing legacy. Proceeds will benefit St. Augustine's School. Parishioners gathered to support the education of their children, just as the parish's founders had done 150 years earlier.