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St. Joseph’s: A 150-Year-Old Cornerstone of the Community

“There was the Capitol Buildings, and there was St. Joseph’s,” says Father William Gurnee of the origins of St. Joseph’s on the Hill, the Roman Catholic Church where he is Parish Pastor. Gurnee is the seventeenth pastor to serve St. Joseph’s in its 150-year history, which is being celebrated this year.

“This church is where I went to church as a layman,” he said. “So I am beyond at my dream job –I’m Pastor of my home church.  Just to be named Pastor here is a dream come true.”

Civil War Veteran Father V.F. Schmitt made the move to preaching in English rather than German. Image: Washington Post (1903)

German Origins
The cornerstone of St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill (313 Second St NE) was laid on October 25, 1868 in a ceremony attended by 20,000 people including then-President Andrew Johnson. Modelled after the Cologne Cathedral, the church was established by the Jesuit order to serve the German-Catholic community of Washington DC.

But by 1886 the Jesuits had sold the indebted St. Joseph’s Church to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, and a new priest, Union veteran Reverend V.F. Schmitt, made the move to preaching in English rather than in German.

By 1903, the church had 2,500 members. Pastor Gurnee said he heard stories told by John Mudd, a deacon of the church in the 1960s, of the years when four priests were living in the rectory as well as five deacons; one deacon had to sleep on the couch. In the years since, church attendance has changed, and now two clergy occupy the four bedrooms.

Cornerstone of the Neighborhood
The church mission to be the cornerstone of the neighborhood is reflected in a line from Psalm 118:22 that was chosen by the Jubilee Committee for this year’s theme: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.”

“I really think it’s meant to be a place of welcome for a very transient city,” said Gurnee, “and I think I’ve lived that myself.”

Born in New York, Gurnee came to the District from North Carolina in 1989 with little besides his Catholic faith and an interest in politics. He began attending St. Joseph’s in June of 1989.

“It was unthinkable to me to not be part of the local Catholic Community,” he said.

For five years he was a staff member for Congressman Robert F. Smith (R-Oregon), leaving politics in 1994 when Smith retired. “I kind of grew up in this culture in that sense,” he said, “so I hopefully get the people.”

After a lifetime of alternating between relationships with girls and the church, he finally committed to his first love, beginning seminary that year. He was ordained in 2000 and celebrated his first mass at St. Joseph’s.

He said one of the things the church does is provide a community for people at a distance from their established support systems. He pointed to a young parishioner who had been transferred to DC as part of her job, and was looking for a place to connect. He said that he had recently met her family, and that he could tell that both she and her family were happy that she had found a place where she belonged.

A Slew of Children
Yet as the church moves through the year of its 150th Jubilee, Gurnee says that the neighborhood is becoming more like what it was in the past: stable, and full of families.

“We have a slew of kids under ten years old,” he says, “but almost no high school students.”

Noting that families have historically moved to the suburbs as their families grow, “We want to try to make parents feel like they can stay in the neighborhood,” says Gurnee, “that their children will be cared for and that they’ll get a religious education.”

The school at St. Joseph’s closed in 1959, when the decision was made to send students to nearby St. Peter School. At some point, there were so few members in the church that religious education was no longer offered. Now, forty children are in the program.

The altar as dedicated in January of 1891. Courtesy: St. Joseph’s RCC

The Future
Father Gurnee says that with all the children in the neighborhood, what St. Joseph’s needs most is space to expand. St Joseph’s has no undercroft or basement, so there is no place for a large group of people to meet, but the parish is working to solve this problem.

The church has discussed constructing a new space, perhaps by building on the church lot where two small buildings currently stand.

But Gurnee is clear on his direction for the future. “My big goal is evangelization,” says Gurnee, noting that there are a lot of Catholics who have lost connection to the church. “The point of the church is to help get souls to heaven. That’s what we do.”

In the future, Gurnee said that the church hopes to work to support the Brothers of Charity, a Belgian order. Two Brothers live in the order’s house on Lamont Street NW, which they have opened up to the homeless, and they are in need of support with finances and services.

Growing Together
Community service is important to the St. Joseph’s community, Gurnee said. That is clearly illustrated by the events planned in commemoration of the 150th Parish Anniversary, described as “opportunities for parishioners and neighbors alike to grow together.” The three events currently scheduled begin with a Day of Service on Saturday, June 23rd. On that day, parishioners will volunteer together, contributing their time and energy to non-profits, neighbors and imprisoned members of the community. On Sunday, September 16th, the church will host a blood drive for Children’s National Medical Center.

At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday October 20th the church will have a celebration mass in honor of the past, present and future of the parish. Gurnee says that the emphasis will be on the local community. “We didn’t invite a bunch of bishops,” he said, “as much as we love our bishops,” noting that an exception was made for Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who comes every Ash Wednesday to celebrate Mass. All the local priests affiliated with the church will attend, including the rector of Saint John Paul II Seminary Rev. Msgr. Robert Panke and Father Aaron Qureshi, who celebrated his first Mass at the church.

As for the church and its role in the Capitol Hill community, Gurnee hopes that people “will feel welcome inside of the church, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.”

The church doors are open weekdays from about 7:00 in the morning to around 3:00 in the afternoon, Father Gurnee said, noting that he feels people often feel nervous in church these days. “It really makes me happy to see, number one, people walk in, and see the beauty of the church.” The ceiling, midnight blue with scattered stars, captivates a lot of people, he said.

“You do much better by making people feel quiet and encouraging them to reflectiveness,” he said.  He wants the church to be a place that will give District residents sanctuary.

“That’s what the church is here for,” he said.

And after 150 years, it is still here.


St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church on the Hill celebrates its 150th Parish Jubilee throughout 2018. All are welcome to participate. If you are interested in Jubilee Activities, contact the Parish Office at 202-547-1223 or Father Gurnee at pastor@st-josephs.org. Learn more about St. Joseph’s and the Jubilee activities by visiting www.st-josephs.org

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