04 January 2012

Holy Comforter/ St. Cyprian Church

I finally visited another church in December, after a long, hard semester which kept me too busy to work on Capitol Catholic. I took my friend Dan to Holy Comforter/ St. Cyprian Church in the Capitol Hill area. I knew a bunch about the history of the parish because I studied it as part of a paper I wrote on black Catholic parishes in Washington, D.C. From my paper:

The parish formed as a result of increasing black migration into Washington, providing a large enough base to support another parish. Between 1880 and 1890, Washington’s black population increased from 48, 377 to 75,572, or 40.1% of the city’s population. Many settled in the Capitol Hill area, east of the Capitol, where the African-American Catholics attended St. Peter’s parish. They were forced to sit in the rear of the church and were offered few services, since the parish priests considered them technically part of the colored parish, St. Augustine’s. This policy engendered complaints as early as 1878, when a letter was sent from Catholics in east Washington to Archbishop of Baltimore James Gibbons, bemoaning the “deaths of a number of colored Catholics without the last sacraments because the other reverend fathers, considering them as parishioners of the distant St. Augustine’s, would not attend to their spiritual needs.”

            Eventually, the voices of these Catholics were heard, and James Cardinal Gibbons sent a Maryland priest, Father James R. Matthews, to St. Peter’s, to work with the black Catholics. He initially held Masses in the former parish hall, and the new parish was organized in 1893. While credit is due to the initiative of the St. Cyprian’s parishioners and the hard work of Father Matthews, it is evident that the most important factor in forming St. Cyprian’s was the increase in black population in Washington and the Capitol Hill area in particular. The St. Joseph’s Advocate noted at the St. Cyprian’s cornerstone-laying that there was a “need long felt of this second church in a section of Washington abounding with colored people having a large percentage of Catholic families for generations accommodated at St. Peter’s.”


St. Cyprian, facing decaying facilities and a smaller parish, merged with nearby Holy Comforter parish, formerly a majority white parish, in the 1960's. Today, the Mass at the merged parish features a large Gospel choir and a very passionate service. The priest gave a sermon which discussed how we develop in our faith, and told stories about working as the only African-American in a small farming town in California. The Mass closed up with a performance of one my favorite Gospel pieces, "I Opened My Mouth To The Lord," a fiery piece which requires that three parts of the choir sing different pieces of the hymn at the same time. It was great, and a great way to end the semester. 




1 comment:

  1. hi michael

    i came across your blog when i was looking for the address of holy comforter church. i am enjoying learning about the catholic churches in dc. i visit dc a couple of times a year and may visit some of the churches you've profiled. i know 2 catholic students - one attends gw and the other attends georgetown. i am going to recommend this blog to them. your pictures are nice. thank you for creating this blog.

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