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The History of Saint Francis de Sales in Washington, D.C.

On an underground church.

Though I’ve been attached to my parish in the Archdiocese of Washington for several years now, I still find myself mumbling some warnings—generously, some prefatory remarks—to friends when they visit for the first time. Experience has taught me that there can be something off-putting about the church, which some have described to me as “oddly touching” and others as “bizarre and overwhelming.” My Catholic roommate grumbles when I drag him there, and my Protestant roommate says, politely, that he would be scandalized by the entire celebration; but this parish is to me the most peaceful on earth, and the one which has taught me to pray better than any other I have frequented.

Our pastor celebrates the traditional Mass in Latin every Sunday, from the carpeted altar at the back of the church, but in any language he would be impossible to hear because of the gurgles and yelps of small children, and the whoosh of the H.V.A.C. and clanging of pipes, which echo around the low, flat, and spare nave of Saint Francis de Sales, partway underground, a parish older than our nation or the capital city that surrounds it, gathered in a church which remains unbuilt. The great churches of Christendom, which travelers admire today, have been said to represent in their fine stones and glass the human soul, the great mysteries of our faith, and the whole wide world. Though its paint is often peeling, this building resembles nothing to me so much as the Church itself, always only part of the way there, off-putting to some, and full of the wonderful grace of our life with God.

I have found the history of this parish, and the reason it looks as it does, impossible to trace with any certainty, though it stretches at least three centuries, easily predating the Revolutionary War and linked to the broader history of the entire region. The brass plaque beside the front doors of the church building announces it as the CATHOLIC CHURCH WITH THE OLDEST CONTINUING CONGREGATION IN DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, but Saint Francis de Sales rarely figures in ecclesiastical histories of the area. Saint Patrick’s, blocks from the White House, claims to be the FIRST CHURCH TO BE ERECTED IN THE "FEDERAL CITY" OUTSIDE THE LIMITS OF "GEORGE TOWNE", presumably to avoid the conflicting claim of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown, to be the FIRST PLACE FOR PUBLIC CATHOLIC WORSHIP IN WHAT IS NOW THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA—both plaques date their buildings to 1792, and these parishes are often named as the oldest in the area, existing continuously since the earliest days of the republic.

Francis de Sales, however, claims its origin in 1722, when Catholic worship was still outlawed in the Province of Maryland and, at least according to oral tradition, a chapel was established in the house of the Queen family. A major thoroughfare several miles away bears the name “Queen’s Chapel Road,” and old maps show it running just blocks from the parish property. It was through his marriage into the Queen family in 1830 that Jehiel Brooks came into the holdings that would become the Brookland neighborhood and host the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the Catholic University of America, and numerous religious houses.

I have no idea how to verify this, and I’ve tried. The historical society didn’t answer my emails. Genealogical records this early are spotty: was it John McQueen, born north of Aberdeen in 1654, who brought the family to the New World? One website claims his youngest son was born in Prince George’s County. Or was it his eldest, Samuel, who arrived here in 1685? The Catholic University of America has a few sheets of undated looseleaf in its library which claim that he actually came in 1637, with a grant of land from Leon­ard Calvert, the first governor of Maryland.

If he had done that, and named the area which would later become Washington, D.C., “Queensborough,” it would have been all the more difficult for his son, also named Samuel and eleven years old in 1713, to inherit the same land from his mother’s father, Richard Marsham, which is what a blog I found says. Many of the relatives of the Queens (or McQueens) in Britain were ministers in the Church of Scotland, and the blog, which seems focused on a branch of the family in Kentucky, claims: “The first mention of a Samuel Queen in colonial history is August, 1695, as a vestryman at the Church of All Faiths in Calvert County, MD.” So was the family even Catholic?

More reliable, or at least entertaining, are the investigations of John Harry Shannon, who styled himself, in the third person, “The Rambler” in his columns for the Washington Evening Star early in the last century and traveled the region amusing himself with historical investigations, filed every Sunday for more than a decade. He showed great consideration for his readers, and his wife:

The Rambler has made three bus trips to the courthouse at Marlboro, and his third trip was to read the will of Richard Marsham. He will hand you extracts from the will because he believes you a reader of literary discernment and discretion, because he knows that this old will ought to interest you, and principally because he cannot afford to take an afternoon off, ride to Marlboro and get home late for dinner—with the penalty such act brings—and then write no more about the matter than that Richard Marsham died and left a will.

So at least the Rambler and the blog concur on the Marsham point.

Though he could reach no firm conclusions about “the early history of the revered colonial shrine, St. Mary’s on the Queen estate, more familiar as Queen’s Chapel,” the Rambler managed to establish that, at the very least, Richard Queen, in his will of 1793, left two acres of land and a chapel to John Carroll, the first bishop of Baltimore and the first in the United States. This small plot continued as a parish church for centuries, but I can’t find much information about it. The parish website claims it was destroyed during the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War, which is at least bad luck, though I can’t confirm anything about these burnings.

By the time the Rambler knocked at the rectory of Saint Francis de Sales parish and befriends the pastor, Father James Edward Malloy, in the 1920s, the church had been rebuilt on the same site once again, “of red brick, solidly constructed and intended to last for centuries” on the site of “the oldest Catholic chapel in America, a place sacred to the Catholic faith for more than one hundred years,” according to a newspaper report from 1908 on the consecration by Bishop 
A. A. Curtis.

That site was abandoned a few years later, and construction for a new church began on Rhode Island Avenue, several blocks away, where it stands unfinished and I attend Mass every week. I don’t know why it’s like this—accounts blame some sort of embezzlement scheme or the Great Depression. It seems like the money just ran out. A parochial school was added at one point; it closed in 2008. A pastor added a facade to the basement, at some point in the 1950s, and the sacramental life of the Church has gone on and on for countless families throughout the three centuries of uneven persistence that have brought the historic Queen’s Chapel to the present day. The white-letter sign out front lists:

Mass: Sat.5:30. Sun.9am&12

“Trad.” LATIN Mass 10:30 am

and a phone number for Sunday School. This is where I have learned how to pray quietly and faithfully, and though I love it, I can explain hardly anything about it or why I am so attached to this strange little parish.

Down the street from the dorm I stayed in during my freshman year of college, just before the graveyard gates and set back from the road by a gentle slope of thirty yards to the field surrounding it, stood a church described by the student paper as “shrouded in mystery” and before which, late at night sometimes by the dark of a new moon, I felt the first real stirrings of superstition, “the intimate feeling of a link with another world,” something malign in my bones, surpassing an intellectual fear of the dark. This building was creepy. There was something off about the entire block because this building was basically all basement, a tar-papered slab stretching way back, a few feet out of the ground, behind a little one-room facade, what could be called a narthex if there were a church on the other side instead of open air. On walks down to wander the cemetery I’d quicken my pace until well past. Apart from the strange lights, ghouls, and disturbing rites you would expect campus rumors to involve, we believed that the strange basement was left behind from a much larger building, burned in a fire before anyone could remember, the church rising up to heaven as smoke.

Journalists will demythologize anything eventually, and you can read on the student paper’s website that the church had just never been built, and has now been bulldozed completely. It was never carried away in a storm or burned down to a basement like we’d all heard; in this case, the money really did just run out. The old pastor is dead now, and may no ghouls disturb his peace.

My parish, if the stories are to be believed, has burned numerous times, and buried innumerable pastors, but that’s not the reason it lies only partially aboveground or why the paint doesn’t always stick to the walls. It is in some ways ancient—more ancient than our country—but the Mass I attend, and the community attached to it, is only a few years old. We don’t have the storied congregation of the other Latin Mass communities in the area, or their imported filigree and impressive stained glass and organs. Our schola does its best. A fellow parishioner once described the interior as a “hotel conference room,” which is fair, but I prefer to think of the vibe as “Mass in the catacombs.” If the traditional rite is restricted further, as is rumored while I write this, I don’t know what will happen to us, but the liturgy is already celebrated underground, so how much could truly change?

“What is expressed visibly in a figure in this house is exhibited entirely through invisible truth in the faithful soul,” writes Hugh Victorine of church dedications, and though he surely had in mind more impressive buildings than this low slab in which I worship, I know this to be true because of how my parish has formed my own habits of prayer. I try to be faithful, and regular, and of quiet service, to do nothing flashy or extraneous but to trust simply and to persevere, to keep in mind that however much things may change all around me, the first and essential thing will always be the same: Placing oneself before the face of God in prayer. About the Church of Holy Wisdom which Justinian hung over Constantinople, a poet of the sixth century reports: “As soon as someone enters the sanctuary, he is filled with bliss, as if he had entered Heaven itself. Surrounded on all sides by innumerable beautiful things, as if by stars, he is completely enchanted.” I feel the same way. When I scurry into this basement, amid the smilies of infants, I am raised up to heaven itself.