Parish History Spotlight: Calvary Explores Its Early History

by | Feb 29, 2024

All parishes in the Diocese of Washington are encouraged to examine their histories from the perspective of race and racism. Over the next few months, we will spotlight parishes that are engaging in this work of truth telling through a racial lens.

Calvary Episcopal Church is one of seven historically Black Episcopal churches in the Diocese of Washington. In 2022, three dedicated parishioners from Calvary formed a committee to begin the work of examining its history. The goal: to determine how its congregation has shaped and been shaped by the realities of race in the United States.

As they continued their research, one of the committee members remarked, “I am amazed at the forced separation of Blacks and Whites in The Episcopal Church. I did not realize how prevalent the church’s racist attitudes were towards Blacks in The Episcopal Church.”

By the end of the Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction (1865-1877), more than 25,000 African Americans had moved into the city of Washington, DC. By the early 1900’s there were 90,000.

In response to this migration into the city, the 1899 Diocesan Convention adopted a resolution to establish a “Committee on Colored Work.” The purpose of this committee was to prevent African Americans from leaving The Episcopal Church to join Methodist and AME churches and to address other issues of African Americans in the diocese. These issues included their representation in the priesthood, their desire for leadership positions, substandard conditions, educational needs of parishioners, vestry formations, and a continued call for respect for African Americans as intelligent and self-governing members.

In response to these issues, the Diocese of Washington established “colored chapels” or “domestic missions” to increase the number of Black Episcopalians. Its Commission for Work among Colored People attempted to achieve several goals: gain a presence and physical foothold in “East” Washington, DC, establish a place of employment for African American priests educated in King Hall (a theological institute connected with Howard University for aspiring Black priests), and provide a parent mission to serve other missions.

To fulfill some of these goals, the Rt. Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee, first Bishop of Washington, summoned the Rev. Franklyn Isaac Abraham Bennett, then in charge of St. Andrew’s Mission School in South Carolina, to come to Washington and open a new Episcopal Mission for African Americans. In June 1901, Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, was founded as a new mission church in the Diocese of Washington.

The issues of white supremacy and segregation are embedded in the founding of Calvary. Bishop Satterlee wanted the new mission to be located in the southeast section of the city, but Rev. Bennett threatened to return to South Carolina if he was not allowed to select the location.

After a careful search, Rev. Bennett located a two-story building at 1303 H Street, NE, and negotiated with the owner to use the second floor. He then secured six months’ rent, after which he searched the basements of DC churches to find equipment for the mission. Meanwhile, meetings were held in various homes in the neighborhood.

The area in Northeast DC selected by Rev. Bennett for the mission was a neighborhood of middle-class single-family homes adjacent to the H Street business district, close to the U Street Corridor. The population in 1901 was approximately 85% white, and area churches were segregated by race.

After the mission officially opened, Calvary quickly became the center of spiritual inspiration and a source of civil and social guidance. Rev. Bennett conducted services for students at Gallaudet School for the Deaf and established classes in industrial arts, cooking, sewing, and carpentry. Calvary also established the first neighborhood kindergarten, playground, branch library, and community center.

Calvary soon outgrew its quarters and, in March 1909, Rev. Bennett led the congregation to lay the cornerstone for a larger space at 11th and G Street, NE. Rev. Bennett paid for the church rectory at no cost to the church or the diocese. Although Calvary always paid off any debts it incurred for renovations, it took 40 years for the diocese to allow “Colored Calvary Chapel” to become independent with a vestry in charge of its own church funds.

Rev. Bennett was active outside of Calvary, both in the diocese and in the District. He became treasurer of the “Diocesan Committee on Colored Work” and one of the earliest civil rights advocates in the diocese. While at Calvary, he was also assigned to the Chapel of St. Philip In Anacostia and opened the Church of Atonement in northeast Washington. In addition, he served as priest-in-charge at St. Simon’s Mission in Prince George’s County for five years (1910-1915). In addition to his clerical duties, Rev. Bennett served two terms on the DC Board of Education, was a member of the Selective Service Board, and founded the Public Interest Citizen’s Association of the northeast section of the city. He was pastor at Calvary until his retirement in 1941.

During Black History Month, we are reminded that we must continue to seek a true multiracial democracy and equitable society for all. The early struggles of Black priests and congregations are beginning to be acknowledged as the wider Episcopal Church, along with American society, seeks to respond to the Black community’s cry for self-expression, liberation, and full participation.

For more information on parish history projects in the Diocese of Washington, visit Parish History Projects: Telling the Truth About Race and Racism.