20 September 2010

St. Francis de Sales Church

This week I headed out to St. Francis de Sales Church in Northeast Washington. It’s a little church with a very interesting story. It claims to be the “oldest continuing congregation” in Washington, and can trace its roots back to the Queen Family Chapel, which Catholics started worshipping at in 1722. The chapel was burned down three times, once during the Revolutionary War, once during the War of 1812, and once by Union soldiers during the Civil War (I found it bizarre that Union soldiers would burn down a building in Union territory. It was a regiment from New York, so my guess is that they were motivated by the anti-Catholic sentiment of the time, which was very strong in New York because of the influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants.). In 1908, the original church of St. Francis de Sales was built on the location of the old Queen’s Chapel. It moved to its new location on Rhode Island Ave in 1927, to the anger of many parishioners. Now, on the original Queen’s Chapel location is Langdon Elementary School, near Queen’s Chapel Road. The St. Francis parish started by building a lower, basement church, but then the Great Depression hit, and they never had funds to start building the upper church. St. Francis de Sales remains the same small church that it was in the 1930’s, a proud descendant of the first generation of American Catholics.
On the outside, St. Francis de Sales appears to be an incredibly small church. That’s mostly because it’s built to be the basement of a much larger building, and a good portion of the worship area is underground. The worship area felt a lot like the lower church at St. Aloysius Gonzaga, a modest but adequate space. As I walked down the center aisle towards the altar, I realized that I was walking on a downward slope.

The parish was mostly African-American, and I began to recognize the same patterns of behavior that I’ve seen at other African-American churches. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. A woman named Linda decided to introduce herself to me and give me a hug before Mass even started. For the hymns, there was a man on piano and a female cantor. For a few of the songs, they seemed as if they were not on the same page, but they did a nice job overall.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells us that we cannot serve both God and mammon (money). In his homily, Deacon Bert said that someone once told him, “Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy the Cadillac you can drive around to look for it.” He then dissected the question, “Is money evil?” No, he concluded, for we need money to feed the poor, clothe our children, and give back to the community. It is endless desire, a “bet you can’t have just one” attitude, which brings us further from God. He told the congregation to take all that they had and put it at the service of God. 

Here's some info on the history of St. Francis de Sales, both of which can be found on the Saint Francis de Sales Website. This document is a basic history of the church, and this is a copy of a 1908 Washington Herald newspaper which has an article discussing the dedication and history of St. Francis de Sales. 


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  1. The reason Queens Chapel was burned by the Army is that the Queen family were slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers. After the Civil War, the family seems to have faded away but the congregation was made up largely of their freed slaves. Some adopted the surname 'Queen' and today the Queens are one of the leading African American Catholic families in Washington, active in Catholic charities and organizations.

  2. Kurt, thanks! I appreciate all your comments, you seem to be very knowledgeable about this stuff!