by Kenneth J. Wolfe
Saint Mary Mother of God is a beautiful old German church across from an Irish pub in a Chinese neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and associated with the traditional Mass in Latin. On the block to its south is the old Pension Building, an Italian Renaissance Revival structure from the 1880s; as its name suggests, it once housed the Pension Bureau, which existed to distribute funds to veterans. It is now the National Building Museum. West of the church is the Mary E. Surratt Boarding House, a Federal Style structure in which the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was planned. It is now an Asian restaurant named Wok and Roll. Surrounding Saint Mary’s is the massive Government Accountability Office and Army Corps of Engineers headquarters, built in 1951. It is made up of ninety degree angles around the church property, as if it was meant to encompass the entire block.
Inspired by the famous Ulm Minster in Baden-Württemberg, the Gothic Revival church of Saint Mary Mother of God has a cornerstone from June 27, 1890. This structure replaced the original parish church of 1846. According to Jack Boucher, the parish’s late historian, the current church was designed by the Baltimore architect Ephraim Francis Baldwin; the firm John Stack and Sons from the same city constructed the building at a cost of sixty-seven thousand dollars. The windows came from Innsbruck, where they were designed at the Stained Glass Institute. The stone was local, from the basin of the Potomac. The “tracker” pipe organ in the choir loft was built by George S. Hutchings of Boston in 1891. It was taken apart, cleaned, tuned, and re-assembled in 2020 and remains in use today.
The bells of Saint Mary’s, which are part of a tower featuring a Seth Thomas clock, were installed by the McShane Foundry of Baltimore in 1920. In accordance with tradition, each bell has a name, according to Pat Lally, the parish’s current historian and bell caretaker: “The Holy Mother of God” (D), “Beautiful Mary of Perpetual Help” (G), “Holy Mary Mother of Mercy” (A), “Our Lady of Sorrows” (B). They still ring regularly, including the Westminster chime on the hour and the Angelus. There is even a fifth bell, a small one separate from the others, used for funerals. After a Requiem Mass, it tolls once for each year the deceased person lived. The bells underwent restoration a few months ago by Smith’s Bell Company in Camby, Indiana.
The founding pastor of Saint Mary’s was, like his parishioners, German. This was the vernacular language in which sermons were given until the First World War. The parish cemetery in the Northeast quadrant of Washington suggests that several Italian families made Saint Mary’s their home before Holy Rosary was constructed two blocks away. A recent custom during the month of All Souls involves a traditional Latin Requiem Mass and a procession through the cemetery, where umlauts and apostrophes co-exist peacefully on the tombstones of the dead.
The middle of the last century was a difficult period for the neighborhood, and Saint Mary’s would certainly have been sold if not for the solicitude of John Peter Van Ness, a wealthy Protestant congressman, mayor, and major general who donated the land for the parish. Should the property cease to offer Catholic worship, its ownership will revert to the family trust. It is difficult to say whether this arrangement is more vexing for the Archdiocese of Washington or for real estate developers.
The parish, according to old timers, had fallen on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. Very few people lived in the dilapidated structures near Fifth and H Streets. Iron bars covered windows. The parish school closed. The convent was shut down and became a homeless shelter. Everything was painted gray. It was a dreary, depressing place. A few old ladies faithfully attended the Monday novenas at the Miraculous Medal altar, broadcast live on A.M. radio, and kept the place on life support.
Things started to change after Saint John Paul II issued Quattuor abhinc annos and then, in 1988, the motu proprio Ecclesia Dei, which allowed for limited celebrations of the traditional Mass according to the missal of 1962. What had begun as an off-site Mass offered by the pastor, Father Aldo Petrini, became one offered inside Saint Mary’s monthly and then weekly.
The traditional Mass at Saint Mary Mother of God church was one of the first to be celebrated in an ordinary parish in the United States after the promulgation of the new liturgical books in 1970. The Mass attracted communicants from all over the region, and continued to do so as a near monopoly. The adjacent Diocese of Arlington prohibited the old Mass until 2006 (paradoxically, Arlington now has more traditional Masses per parish than any other diocese in the world).
When I started attending Saint Mary’s nearly three decades ago, the surrounding area still looked like an abandoned war zone. It was what was affectionately known around the country as a “Latin Mass neighborhood.” Across the street was a huge surface parking lot, which made for plentiful, reliable, and free parking on Sundays. Behind it sat shady nightclubs; a few Chinese restaurants were the only other businesses nearby. The parish employed a security guard during Masses.
In the late 1990s, Father David Conway began a massive restoration project that would begin the visual transformation of the church, which was now full of Catholics each Sunday for the nine a.m. Latin Mass. All the painted gray bricks on the old rectory, the school, and the convent returned to a beautiful red. Waterfall-sized leaks in the church were repaired. The interior ceiling would go from painted-over dreariness to glorious colors and patterns that would surely have pleased the Germans of the late nineteenth century. Professional lights, with the assistance of staff from the National Gallery of Art, were installed to illuminate the church interior.
The two confessionals inside Saint Mary’s were removed and likely destroyed half a century ago. A plywood office-like structure was built where one of the confessionals used to be, complete with a lamp, chair, and a box of tissues. Father Conway managed to bring at least one traditionally designed confessional back to Saint Mary’s. When the nearby Irish parish, Saint Patrick’s, removed or destroyed nearly everything in its church, including all its confessionals, he had one of them salvaged and installed to replace the plywood structure.
The crowds of Catholics in the hundreds, young and old, kept coming to Mass at nine a.m. Quality started to improve across the board. The volunteer, mixed choir (which I briefly led) screeched one too many times for Justice Antonin Scalia, who complained to Father Conway; from thence forth, the men’s Gregorian chant schola sang all the music. It was a blessing in disguise to be fired by Justice Scalia and Father Conway, as our schola is now excellent under the direction of David Sullivan.
The turning point for the neighborhood was the construction of an arena for basketball and hockey games as well as concerts. The former M.C.I. Center changed everything. The surface parking lot became luxury apartments, making a place for one’s car a twenty or thirty-dollar expense for weeknight Masses. Good restaurants opened in restored structures. Hotels and high-rise condos were built. Chinatown was transformed, and Saint Mary’s was suddenly in a desirable neighborhood. Traditionally minded priests from around the country, even around the world, studying for graduate degrees or teaching at the Catholic University of America arranged to be housed in the rectory, a tradition that still remains. The Irish Channel across the street became the de facto parish pub.
The work of restoration continued. Monsignor K.B. Smith, who administered the parish in the months after Father Conway’s retirement and eventual death, had the Epistle-side Sacred Heart altar restored and used it to offer a newly instituted weekly eight a.m. traditional Latin Mass on Fridays, which still continues. It was perhaps the first time one of the three side altars had been used in decades. During Monsignor Smith’s brief time at Saint Mary’s, the nine a.m. Mass became a standing room-only affair, with nearly four hundred communicants each week.
Theodore McCarrick despised Saint Mary’s and most everyone connected to the parish. His predecessor, James Cardinal Hickey, had granted permission for the traditional Mass there, and McCarrick viewed the parish as an embarrassing backwater. He once made a pastoral visitation to the Mass in the new rite that followed the traditional Mass at nine a.m., eager to greet the handful of people who attended it. But the old Mass ran a bit long, so hundreds of people inside the church were an obstacle to McCarrick. One parishioner, Frank Kelly, had consistently complained to Church authorities about McCarrick, even providing details such as McCarrick’s beach house in New Jersey, in which seminarians were forced to share a bed with “Uncle Ted.” McCarrick knew that Frank was inside the church, and he made sure to go nowhere near him or anyone else who attended the old rite. If memory serves, McCarrick actually waited in his car until the Latin Mass congregation had dispersed.
No one in a position of power listened to Frank. No one believed his anecdotes and allegations about McCarrick. Now deceased, Lieutenant Colonel Frank Kelly, U.S.M.C., must be looking down at the disgraced ex-cleric with a sense of relief.
Frank was the coffee and doughnut godfather. Not long after the nine a.m. Latin Mass was established at Saint Mary’s, he began the weekly social hour in the dingy school basement. There, near the coffee urn, Pat Buchanan was a regular, talking with everyone around him about the issues of the day. In the smoking corner was Nino Scalia, hearing the latest bad news about Georgetown University, his alma mater, and the Jesuits from those in the know. James Buckley, D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge, former senator and brother of William Buckley, was a pleasure to listen to: soft spoken but brilliant. Nellie Gray, founder of the March for Life, kept everyone informed about the pro-life movement. The nine a.m. Mass and its coffee and doughnuts social remain, even as some of its veterans rest at home or, one hopes, with our Lord.
For some years, Monsignor Charles Pope celebrated the old Mass monthly at Saint Mary’s. As a layman, he had attended the parish. He still visits from time to time, and keeps in touch with many old friends. (After conducting the pre-Cana instruction for my wife, Amy, and me, he was the witness of our nuptials using the old books and served as subdeacon for our nuptial High Mass.)
Father Alfred Harris was pastor from 2006 until 2018. McCarrick, in his final clergy assignment of 2006, transferred Father Harris to Saint Mary’s, fully aware that he had not been involved with the traditional Mass since his childhood, and that he did not know Latin or chant. A Vietnam veteran and recipient of a Purple Heart, Father Harris persevered. He not only became acquainted with the older liturgical books but undertook a series of restorations. The baptismal font was moved from the sanctuary back to the baptistery. The Marian altar went from a covered-up dumping ground for votive candles to a fully functional side altar and tabernacle. Both projects involved the commissioning of new artwork.
But the crowning physical achievement of Father Harris’s tenure was a set of five paintings—the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary—installed in nooks under the five stained glass windows over the main altar, where empty spaces had once housed similar artwork. Even the archdiocesan newspaper found the new paintings worthy of a major article complete with photos in the Catholic Standard. The congregation prays for Father Harris as he rests in retirement.
The current pastor, Father Vincent De Rosa, has continued the work of restoration while building up a young adult group and offering more traditional Latin Masses on weeknights for first and second class feast days. Since 2018, Father De Rosa has had the pipe organ, the sanctuary tiles, the altar rail, and the main altar restored. New matching altar linens now adorn the church. A complete set of tabernacle veils was handmade by Benedictine sisters for the main altar tabernacle. The old school basement has been renovated with new bathrooms. Air conditioning in the church has been replaced with new units. A capital campaign has already reached its goals for additional projects such as the restoration and re-installation of stained glass windows and art work over the two side altars in the sanctuary, along with artwork surrounding empty walls around the main altar.
Apart from Christmas, Easter, and other major feasts, the two greatest dates of the year at Saint Mary’s are the March for Life in late January and the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria on October 21. On the morning of the March for Life, one may hear Mass at all four altars in the church; traditionally minded priests use them before the speeches and procession to the Supreme Court. Following the march itself, the annual Nellie Gray Mass honors the faithful parishioner who started it all. The Blessed Karl Mass was inaugurated by Suzanne Pearson more than a decade ago; it is always followed by a lecture on the life of the beatus and, of course, refreshments in the basement. One year a Habsburg met a friend of mine after the Mass, and they began dating. When they were married at Saint Mary’s, the Washington Post did a piece on the nuptials. The red carpet they bought for the center aisle is still rolled out at Christmas.
Old Saint Mary’s continues to attract traditional-leaning extern clergy who live in its rectory. While the fate of similar parishes throughout the country and indeed the world is now very much in question, Saint Mary’s is a shrine without territorial boundaries, which means that the traditional Mass has a better chance of surviving rumored restrictions by Cardinal Gregory than other churches in the archdiocese.
It’s still there. So is the coffee hour, where one can enjoy good company, as I have for some twenty-six years, and make lifelong friends. High Mass with Gregorian chant followed by Krispy Kremes, dark roast, and good conversation? The ideal Sunday morning.
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