Our History – Since 1858
Saint Augustine Parish traces its heritage to 1858 and the efforts of a group of dedicated emancipated Black Catholics. Faced with a society that was not yet willing to put off the last vestiges of slavery and a Church that, at best, tolerated the presence of Black people in its congregation, these men and women founded a Catholic school and chapel on 15th Street under the patronage of Blessed Martin de Porres. In what is perhaps a touch of historical irony, this school was operating four years before mandatory free public education of Black children became law in the Nation’s Capital.
After operations were briefly interrupted by the Civil War, a new church was built and dedicated to Saint Augustine in 1876. From its beginning, Saint Augustine was the parish of Black Catholics in Washington, DC. A tradition of lay efforts and of determination flourished.
From its earliest years, the school was staffed by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the oldest religious order of Black women in the United States. The Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary was established in May of 1892 and continues to this day as an active organization of women in the parish.
The parish continued to grow and flourish with a strong commitment to education and good liturgy. In February 1928, under the pastorship of Father Alonzo Olds, the parish purchased the site of the Washington Home for Children at 1715 15th Street, NW, intending it to be the new home of St. Augustine Parochial School. The school, a rectory and a convent were soon built and the construction of a new church begun. Most of the parish activities and operations were moved to this 15th and S Streets location, while the original church building at 15th and M Streets was maintained and used until 1946, when it was sold by the Archdiocese of Washington.
One of St. Augustine’s neighbors was a large Catholic parish, St. Paul, whose original membership was primarily of Irish and German descent. With the rise of integration and shifting urban demographics, membership at St. Paul dwindled steadily until 1961, when Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle decreed that the parishes of St. Paul and Saint Augustine would be united.
In 1979, the Saints Paul and Augustine parish, through the parish pastoral council, staff and the Archbishop of Washington, made a decision to sell the Saint Augustine property at 15th and S Streets. The old Saint Paul buildings at 15th and V Streets would be renovated to house the consolidated schools and other ministries of the parish.
On November 12, 1982, Archbishop James Hickey decreed that the parish of Saints Paul and Augustine, served by the Church at 15th and V Streets NW, would again be called the parish of Saint Augustine. With two thousand registered members and three thousand who call it their home church, Saint Augustine is now one of the largest parishes in Washington DC.
Saint Augustine’s proud history continues. In November 1989 Father John Payne, OSA, was ordained and named as the first African American associate pastor assigned to the Saint Augustine parish. In January 1991 Father Russell L. Dillard was installed as the first African American pastor in Saint Augustine’s history. Father Dillard was elevated to Reverend Monsignor in May 1991 and served as pastor until 2002.
Josephite Father Lowell Case served as St. Augustine’s parochial administrator for two years, and District native Fr. Patrick A. Smith succeeded Fr. Case, becoming pastor in 2004. In 2007, Fr. Smith and a group of committed parishioners saved St. Augustine Catholic School from closure and successfully led its transition to being a parish school beginning in 2008-2009, after the school had just marked its 150th anniversary.
In 2007, moreover, the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, a missionary religious order from Nigeria, came to St. Augustine Catholic School, helping to revive a tradition of 90 years of religious serving at the school, started by the Oblate Sisters of Providence.