The Founding of Epiphany Catholic Church (1923-25) and the Reconciliation Service for Holy Trinity and Epiphany Parishioners (1994)
By Peter J. Albert
Holy Name Society, Holy Trinity Church, Washington, D.C., April, 1922
For well over a century, from the 1790s until the 1920s, free and enslaved African Americans comprised a significant proportion — perhaps as many as a third — of Holy Trinity’s parishioners. The first two marriages recorded in the parish took place in 1795, and in both cases the couples were enslaved persons who had to receive the permission of their enslavers to marry. The first free Black whose marriage was recorded in Holy Trinity’s marriage register, Edward Butler, married Bett, an enslaved woman, on May 2, 1797. The first baptisms at Holy Trinity were recorded in February 1795, and of the seven infants baptized that month, three were the children of enslaved persons.
Although Holy Trinity accepted Black Catholics as members, they were not integrated into parish life. From the time of Fr. Francis Neale, S.J., Holy Trinity’s first pastor (1790-1817), there was a gallery in the church reserved for African Americans, and Black parishioners had to reach this segregated balcony by an outside staircase. Even after the present church was built, Black parishioners had to continue to use the old one. Although eventually allowed to worship in the new church, they were still kept separate — relegated first to the side galleries and then, when those were removed and the original small choir loft was extended across the back of the church, they had to sit in the balcony. Only after white parishioners had received Holy Communion could they approach the Communion rail. And into the 1920s, Holy Trinity baptismal registers continued to note if the person baptized was "colored."
The two documents that will follow in this series, "A 1960 Account by Gertrude Turner Waters of the Founding of Epiphany Catholic Church" and "A 1994 Account from Holy Trinity News of the Reconciliation Service for Holy Trinity and Epiphany Parishioners" provide windows on the pain endured by African Americans at Holy Trinity, their exodus from Holy Trinity in 1923 and their founding of Epiphany Catholic Church in 1925-26, and the Holy Trinity-Epiphany Reconciliation Service in 1994.
Following racially-motivated rioting in Washington, D.C., in July 1919, when white mobs attacked members of the city’s Black community — in the violence nearly a dozen people were killed and over a hundred were injured — Holy Trinity’s African American parishioners embraced the idea of leaving Trinity and creating a parish of their own. They were encouraged in this vision when Bishop Michael J. Curley, the archbishop of Baltimore, with jurisdiction over Washington, D.C., endorsed the founding of new African American churches in the city. When the first of these — the Church of the Good Shepherd, located on I Street, SW, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, with Fr. Thomas J. Duffy, a Josephite priest, as pastor — was opened in September 1923, it was announced that a second African American church, located in Georgetown, would soon follow.
By the time this announcement was made, however, the proposal to create the new Georgetown parish had already been in the works for some months. In the spring of 1923, Fr. Benedict J. Smith, S.J., Holy Trinity’s pastor, compiled a list of Trinity’s African American parishioners for Bishop Curley, giving their names and addresses, indicating the number of children in each family and how many were of school age, and noting if one or the other of the parents was Protestant. The list enumerated over 350 adults. On June 1, Bishop Curley referred Fr. Smith’s list to Fr. Louis B. Pastorelli, the Superior General of the Josephite Order. Holy Trinity’s African American parishioners began holding planning meetings, looking to the creation of their new parish, in Trinity Hall in October 1923. After they were no longer able to gather at Trinity, they met — with Fr. Duffy serving in an advisory capacity — in the homes of African American parishioners and at the beauty parlor owned and operated by Mrs. Elnora Jackson, which offered more space than private homes. (The procession for the cornerstone-laying ceremony at Epiphany assembled at Mrs. Jackson’s.)
In August 1924 the Rev. Lawrence E. Schaefer, also a Josephite, was assigned to the new parish, then known as the "Epiphany Mission." Initially the Black community rented and refurbished a structure at 1409 28th Street, where Mass could be said (Mrs. Dorothy Thomas, who spoke at the Holy Trinity-Epiphany Reconciliation Service in 1994, could recall her father painting that building), and subsequently they raised the funds to purchase two vacant lots on Dumbarton Street as the site for the new church. Epiphany’s cornerstone was laid in July of 1925, and the church was dedicated in 1926. The roster of parishioners showed a congregation at Epiphany of some 600 members in 1924, and 630 members in 1925.
The author wishes to thank the following for their generous assistance with the research for documentation for this article: Dorothy Harris Gray, Linda L. Gray, and April Lynn Bowler, Epiphany Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.; Carla Canady, Archivist, The Society of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Washington, D.C.; Lynn Conway, University Archivist, Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, and Mary Beth Corrigan, Curator of Collections on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, Georgetown University Library Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Alison M. Foley, Reference Archivist, Associated Archives at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Baltimore, Md.; and C. Kevin Gillespie, S.J., pastor, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.