How do you celebrate a church’s two-hundredth birthday? Father Gary Studniewski and his parishioners at St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill decided on a yearlong calendar of events drawing from the church’s mission of being “a tangible manifestation of Christ living in the community.” Beginning with a rally in Providence Park on Sept. 25 and extending into 2022 with retreats and sacred services, planned events include a St. Peter’ Day at Nats Park and a special closing Mass in the fall.
It’s quite a swirl of activity, as should be expected from a church nearly as old as the District itself. Only two decades after Washington opened for business as the nation’s capital in 1800, a group of Catholics, residents of the fledgling Hill, decided they needed a place of worship closer than St. Patrick’s, downtown. By 1821, they had achieved their dream.
Today’s celebrants are acknowledging a debt to the founders while also looking to the future of a church that serves not only the Hill but the US Capitol, just around the corner. St. Peter’s is known as the House church, to distinguish it from the Senate church, St. Joseph’s. The pastor of St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill in Washington arguably has as noteworthy a pulpit as the pastor of St. Peter’s on the Vatican Hill in Rome.
In 1820, leading District residents, including Daniel Carroll of Duddington and James Hoban, architect of the White House, got permission from the bishop of Baltimore to raise money for constructing a church on the Hill. Their efforts produced a plain, red brick structure at the corner of Second and C streets SE. Laid out on the basilica plan, it had a long central nave, where most of the parishioners sat, flanked by side aisles that supported arcaded galleries reserved for African American parishioners. The parish boundaries extended from Capitol Hill and the Navy Yard clear across Southwest.
The first pastor was French-born James F.M. Lucas, who arrived at his post on Sept. 3, 1821, celebrated the first Mass in the new church on Oct. 14 and would guide the parish until 1829. During the next half-century, the congregation grew with influxes of Irish and German residents, among others, and African Americans. One of the parishioners, Mary Surratt, became infamous for being convicted of helping the conspirators who assassinated President Lincoln. The pastor of St. Peter’s visited her in prison and attended her hanging at the Arsenal (now Fort McNair) in 1865.
In 1889 the parish began construction of a larger church, on the same site as the original building. The cornerstone ceremony began with a parade marching to the beat of John Philip Sousa’s Marine Corps Band. This more elaborate church, seating nearly a thousand, was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1940.
By then the church had company in the shape of the St. Peter’s School, established in 1867 at the corner of Third and E streets SE and staffed by the Sisters of the Holy Cross. The school became noted for academic rigor and boasts many alumni on the Hill and throughout the DC metro area. It has twice been recognized by the US Department of Education as a National Blue Ribbon School, one of 50 non-public schools in the country to be identified as “Exemplary High Performing.”
One of the most notable events in the school’s history came when Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal O’Boyle, mandated that the diocesan schools should not consider race when admitting students. Washington’s Catholics, black and white, gained integrated education three years before Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 did the same thing for the public schools.
The original school building received several renovations (including indoor plumbing in 1923) and was expanded to accommodate a growing staff and student body. But heavy use took a toll on the physical infrastructure, and in 1971 high winds literally blew the roof off the building. Irish-born Father Michael J. O’Sullivan, who became pastor of St. Peter’s Church in 1970 and served until 2005, recalled, in an Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project interview, that “the school actually had reached the stage where it was, you know, clean up or bust.” Under O’Sullivan’s leadership, the parish was able to finance restoration, in part through the sale of vacant land adjoining the school.
An even greater challenge emerged in the 1980s, when the Sisters of the Holy Cross, like many religious orders throughout the nation, began suffering a declining membership and could not continue to supply teachers and administrators to Catholic schools and colleges. St. Peter’s would have to rely on lay teachers.
That had implications, both social and financial. Most of the parents with children in the school had themselves been products of Catholic schooling, recalled Father O’Sullivan, “and they had to adjust to the idea that there’s going to be no nuns in the school right now.” Money was also a big issue because the school could no longer rely on the low-paid religious for teaching. The lay teachers and administrators needed higher pay, and “that took some getting used to,” he remarked. St. Peter’s survived the transition to a lay administration and faculty, while retaining both its Catholic identity and its academic rigor.
Church and Community
While the parish was resolving internal and infrastructure issues, it was also trying to create a closer relationship with the residents of the Hill. Father O’Sullivan recalled that when he arrived in his new post, he found the church doors locked and bearing a note directing visitors to request access at the rectory. “Somebody had been, apparently, attacked in the church and so the church was locked.” He saw no reason for that. “I took that down, that sign, and threw it in the nearest trash can and opened the church door. And we never lost anything of value.” In fact, he continued, the church became a haven for homeless residents, especially during the cold months, “and they recognized the sanctity of the church and were very, very protective of the church because it was kind of their territory.”
Efforts at better community connection gained momentum after Vatican II, a major church conference convened by the papacy in 1962-65 to bring the Catholic Church into better alignment with the times. Father O’Sullivan took full advantage of the new spirit. He made membership in the lay Parish Council an elected position, rather than appointed, and used it as a clearinghouse for parish affairs, even the selection of an architect when the church needed restoration. The school principal also participated, so that “everybody on the Parish Council knew what was going on in the parish and participated in the parish.”
St. Peter’s promoted community outreach, both directly through affiliation with the Capitol Hill Group Ministry (a loose association of the pastors of the churches on Capitol Hill) and financial support for a soup kitchen and free meals. St. Peter’s began offering free meeting space for Hill organizations. In 1996 Father O’Sullivan accepted a Capitol Hill Community Achievement Award in recognition of the church’s contribution to Capitol Hill.
Community engagement remains important at the church. To cite one example, the parishioners of the Social Justice Initiative sponsor programs on pressing issues like immigrants and refugees, climate change, homelessness and racism. They have affiliated with Good Neighbors, a Capitol Hill refugee resettlement group, and DC127, a District-wide church movement that helps children in or at risk of entering foster care. Another social engagement program is the St. Peter’s Haiti ministry, which sells coffees, teas and other fair-trade items to benefit a sister parish, Notre Dame D’Altagrace in Cap Haitian. The St. Peter’s website provides information on products and how to order: https://saintpetersdc-haiti.square.site.
What is past is prologue, the historians claim, so the completion of two hundred years should simply be the beginning of the next two hundred. But for St. Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill, each year seems to bring new challenges, opportunities and, if the past is indeed prologue, new responses.
Southwest DC resident William Zeisel is a partner in QED Associates LLC, a consulting firm that has conducted extensive research on the history of the DC area. He is co-author of the official history of the University of the District of Columbia.