St. Thomas Parish

I recently attended a presentation at St. Thomas Parish, the Episcopal church at 1772 Church Street, NW., organized by the DC Preservation League and given by Matt Jarvis, the architect for new church plans.

Presented as A Civil Union: Marrying the Historic and Modern – the talk discussed the long history of the church and the upcoming new building that, if all goes as planned, could be up by the Christmas holiday season 2012.

The Church’s history begins in 1891, just 20 years after Washington D.C. was designated to be the Nation’s Capital, when Calvary Parish was formed. The first service took place in 1899. There were many well-known parishioners through the last 100 years including President Roosevelt who served on the Vestry in 1918 while he was Secretary of the Navy. He later attended services at St. Thomas’ during his presidency. Harry S. Truman and Lyndon Johnson, also, both attended services at the church.

In 1970 the church was destroyed by arson. The church was constructed from stone with the roof and pews made from wood. The fire was so intense that the entire church structure, except the nave, was razed. The arsonist placed the crucifix and lectionary from the alter outside in the alley, then saturated the floor with gasoline and lit the church on fire. After the fire the church continued to serve the community by holding services in the old rectory, but struggled financially.

From the history of the church:

Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 sparked riots that destroyed a large portion of the business district along 14th Street, only a few blocks away. Mr. Breul wrote that “we were worshiping in distressing surroundings and most suburban people would not come back downtown without fear and trepidation.” Then came the fire in 1970. It was the last straw for many in the 550-member congregation, which shrank by half and then some. The blaze also marked the beginning of severe financial decline from which the parish would take nearly two decades to recover. Many view the fire as the defining moment in St. Thomas’ 112-year history because it brought about significant changes in the physical and social structure of the parish. “The fire was a seminal event for St. Thomas’,” one former parishioner said. “It really cleansed the church.” While St. Thomas’ had already begun to assume a more pronounced role as a parish committed to social justice and the concerns of the inner city, the fire in many ways solidified that shift. St. Thomas’ — the building and the people — was not what it had been before.

Today the old church grounds are used as a park and a contemplative area. The nave is fenced off but visible, and in the park there are benches and a labyrinth. The parish hall is where all activity is currently conducted. The hall is open for meetings most days a week.

St. Thomas’ Parish today is thriving. The presentation focused on the history of the church as well as the plans for a new church that will be built upon the current park. To see the new plans for the church

The new plans can be viewed on the St. Thomas’ website at: http://growth.stthomasdc.org, where you can also watch a design fly-through, and learn more about the past, present, and future of the church.

For more information on the DC Preservation League or to see a listing of events, visit the league at: www.dcpreservation.org.