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The first church building at Washington Circle
The centrality of the Mass—Holy Communion—has been the primary emphasis of its worship from the earliest years. St. Paul’s Christmas “midnight Mass” of 1870 was perhaps the first in the United States in an Episcopal church. The Eucharist has been celebrated daily, and vestments used, since before 1900. The Blessed Sacrament has been reserved continuously since at least 1912. The parish was founded as a “free church” (meaning there were no rented pews, a rarity in the 19th century), and was a pioneer in the use of the “envelope system” for offerings.
St. Paul’s held the first “choral service” in Washington, with the first vested choir, and the first processional cross—a service that was remembered by the then-Rector’s wife in a newspaper interview many years later: “…[W]hat a sensation was created by the announcement the boy choir would appear on that day; how the people came from all over the district and packed the church to the doors, some bringing boxes and stools to stand on and look in at the windows, to see the spectacle of men and boys in robes…”. The parish’s processional cross also was used at services marking the laying of the foundation stone of the Washington Cathedral in 1907 and the setting of the Cathedral’s final stone in 1990.
A wave of missionary enthusiasm in the Convocation of Washington (then part of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland) led to the founding of St. Paul’s Parish just after the close of the Civil War, as the city developed westward. Sponsored by St. John’s Parish (Lafayette Square), St. Paul’s was organized in 1866 and achieved parish status in 1867. The first church was built at 917 23rd Street, NW, near Washington Circle, in 1868.
The surrounding area looked far different than it does today. There was great contrast between L’Enfant’s grand plans for the nation’s capital and the sordid reality of the city. Barracks covered the land where the church was to be built. The low, marshy land south of Washington Circle was known as Foggy Bottom, noted for duck and frog hunting. The West End was still fairly rural, as reflected in newspaper advertisements in 1866 seeking lost livestock at addresses described as “K and 21st St” or “26th St between I and K.” The fortunes of the area waxed and waned several times over the intervening decades.
As World War II neared its conclusion in late 1944, the federal government took the church property by eminent domain (with recompense) in order to construct a hospital for The George Washington University. Committed to remaining in the heart of the city, the parish purchased nearby property at the current K Street location. St. Paul’s engaged architect Philip H. Frohman to design a new church, which was completed in 1948. During a prolonged period of construction, the parish worshiped at St. Thomas’ Church near Dupont Circle.
St. Paul’s completed a significant construction initiative in 2009 that provides major accessible improvements to parish facilities to enable its mission and ministry, including a welcoming new main entrance and atrium gathering space; new music facilities (Gray House); and new parish offices and meeting space (Carwithen House). Other recent improvements have included renovations to Pillsbury House (the parish hall) to provide dedicated space for Christian education for children and youth, and remodeled meeting and nursery facilities.
Although St. Paul’s has always been a “neighborhood” parish, it draws visitors and newcomers from distances well beyond the parish bounds and the District of Columbia.