What’s the oldest Catholic Church east of the river? Saint Teresa of Avila
On Sunday morning the streets of historic Anacostia are enlivened with activity as city denizens and suburban dwellers flock to worship at their home sanctuaries. As songs of praise emanate from the numerous homes of God within the boundaries of the historic neighborhood, one church has faithfully anchored the same corner for more than one hundred and thirty years.
Saint Teresa of Avilla, at the northwest corner of 13th and V Street SE, is the oldest Roman Catholic Church east of the Anacostia River. Its doors opened in the fall of 1878. Originally part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the City of Washington was named a separate archdiocese by Pope Pius XII in 1939. St. Teresa, in fact, is older than the Archdiocese of Washington by more than a half century.
Beginning as a multiracial church, reflective of the area’s population at the time, African Americans contributed much of the funding and labor to construct Saint Teresa. However, by the second decade of the twentieth century black parishioners were dissatisfied with the limited role they were permitted in the predominantly white church and established a separate church and parish for black Catholics as the Mission of St. Teresa’s. Meeting for worship in private homes and in the basement of St. Teresa’s, black parishioners raised funds for a new church.
By 1920, the cornerstone was laid for Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Morris Road, SE. According to Cultural Tourism DC, this would be the second formal division of St. Teresa’s. The first occurred when white parishioners established Assumption Catholic Church in what had been the village hall for Congress Heights at 611 Alabama Avenue SE on April 2, 1916.
The first pastor of Assumption, Reverend John E. Horstkamp, purchased the lot on the corner of Portland Street, now Malcolm X Avenue, and Martin Luther King Avenue SE. The area is now occupied by a park and gas station.
The Twining City Chapel, founded in 1924, later Saint Francis of Xavier, at Pennsylvania Avenue and 27th Street SE, was another church started by former parishioners of St. Teresa’s, as was Our Lady Queen of Peace at 3800 Ely Place SE founded in 1948, Saint Thomas More at 4275 Fourth Street SE founded in 1952, and Holy Family in Hillcrest Heights in Prince George’s County, Maryland founded in 1962.
The growth of the Catholic community east of the Eastern Branch parallels the population growth and residential development of East Washington.
By the second half of the twentieth century St. Teresa had become a predominantly black congregation with whites slowly moving out of the area after integration of the city’s schools. In 1976 Rev. George Stallings, the youngest pastor in the history of the Archdiocese of Washington was installed. Stallings attracted considerable attention by appealing directly to the cultural and spiritual needs of his growing black membership. Combining traditional Catholic liturgy with African rites, a traditional black preaching style, and elements of African American history and music, Stallings captured national headlines.
He hung a painting in St. Teresa’s depicting a black Jesus, introduced gospel music at mass, and delivered fiery, spirited sermons resembling those of black Protestant church orators. Stallings remained the church’s pastor until 1988. During his tenure at St. Teresa membership grew from 200 to 2,000 parishioners.
A Washington Post article from 1984 cites changes Stallings instituted at St. Teresa and quotes parishioners as being happy with the changes. In 1983 St. Teresa’s newly formed gospel choir beat out choruses from denominations across the city to win a gospel contest held at the Kennedy Center. On a recent visit to St. Teresa, near the end of a more than two hour service, the choir in the rear balcony brought the congregation to its feet. Through the floor you could feel the vibrations and movements of the congregation.
“There’s too little of the streets in the church and too little of the church in the streets,” says Rev. Monsignor Raymond G. East, who has been pastor at St. Teresa for the past 5 years, and tells members of St. Teresa that, “God is all that.”
“Being at St. Teresa has been a great learning experience. There has been so much the community has taught me. We tend to focus on the needs of Anacostia, but there are a lot more gifts than needs,” declares Msgr. East, who was involved in a support role at St. Teresa during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
“St. Teresa gives me a sense of energy. If I miss a week, I feel funny. When I’m here with my church family, I feel better,” said Douglas Daniels, who, with his own family, has been coming to the church for the last seventeen years and has been an usher the last fourteen.
With a congregation of three hundred and fifty families, St. Teresa plans to start a Saturday evening jazz liturgy in the upcoming months as a way of opening the doors of the church to the neighborhood to give the community a place to gather and to build friendships, according to Msgr. East.
As a member of the Washington Interfaith Network, St. Teresa is active with other citywide churches of various faiths to address community issues. Recently, St. Teresa participated in a workshop with more than seventy-five adults, the majority under the age of twenty-five, who received information about job training opportunities.
For more information on St. Teresa of Avilla visit http://www.stachurch.org. Daily mass is held M-F at 7AM. Traditional Mass is at 7:30AM and Contemporary Mass is at 9AM on Sundays. The church has ministries that are active throughout the week.