THE HISTORY OF HOLY REDEEMER PARISH
Holy Redeemer Parish is in existence today because of its dedicated parishioners. During periods of transition, the Christians labored tirelessly during the difficult “Twenties”, the Depression, long years of recovery and through years of prosperity. The parish experienced phenomenal growth which continued through desperate years of extraordinary social change in the inner City of the “Nation’s Capital.” In the mid 1940’s the membership totaled over 4,500 members.
The context for the two-hundred plus Black Catholic families desiring to establish a Catholic parish for themselves and others in 1919 rises out of the post Civil War years. The passion and desire of black Catholic laymen during the Reconstruction Era to become full members of the American Catholic Church, as well as full citizens in the American society, led to the organizing and convening of five Black Congresses beginning in 1889 until 1894. The Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons (1877-1921), supported the deliberations of these laymen and spoke at the First Black Catholic Congress in January, 1889. This assembly of Black Catholic laymen was spear-headed by Daniel Rudd, the editor of the Ohio State Tribune (founded in 1866); and, the site chosen was St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.. Discussion revolved around strategies for promoting the Spiritual formation and Christian education of Black Catholics (termed ‘People of Color’) in areas where the freed slaves and their descendents had settled. Recommendations surfaced at the Congresses by delegates to establish Black Catholic Churches and Schools with the support and approval of the American Hierarchy.
Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore supported the visionary plans and recommendations of the Congress delegates throughout these years. The Archbishop of Baltimore was passionate about the inclusion of the freed slaves and their descendents into mainstream American society and within the Catholic Church community. For example, Cardinal Gibbons did not support the position of some political and religious leaders, that the state of poverty and illiteracy among the emancipated Black American disqualified them from exercising the right to vote. When the question of an amendment to the Maryland constitution arose in 1909, which would have barred the ‘Negroes’ in large numbers from voting, Cardinal Gibbons was very clear and emphatic in his position: “…Moreover, the laws of the land give the ‘Negroes’ the right to vote; and to deprive them of that right is, in my opinion, an open violation of the spirit, if not of the letter, of the Constitution of the United States; and for that reason…I am opposed to the adoption of the proposed amendment.”
The Archbishop opposed segregationist policies in Baltimore City and pressed the City Council to integrate the City’s School system in 1915. In an article in the North American Review for October, 1905, the Cardinal denounced lynching as a “blot on our American civilization.” He later addressed the delegates in the State House in Annapolis to pass anti-lynching legislation for Maryland. Booker T. Washington spoke of Cardinal Gibbons as “America’s foremost champion of the Colored People.”
Being such an advocate, Cardinal Gibbons established Catholic Churches and Schools for Black Catholics in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. In the 1880’s the Archbishop established St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baltimore and St, Augustine Catholic School; and, later, the Church in Washington, D.C... In 1888 he sponsored the opening of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Baltimore, to train American men – of both races – for missionary career work among the Blacks of the Eastern United States. In 1891, the Cardinal realized a significant result of his efforts when he ordained the first native Black man to the priesthood for the Josephite Society – Charles R. Uncles.
In 1919, some two-hundred plus families, who were in Northwest Washington and worshipping at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic Church on North Capitol Street, petitioned Cardinal Gibbons to establish their own Catholic Church for People of Color. The petition was granted, and the Cardinal assigned the task of organizing the new parish to the Josephite Fathers. The Superior General, Rev. Louis Pastorelli, SSJ, in turn, ask Rev. Frances J. Tobin, SSJ to meet with the founding families and organize the efforts for buying land and designing and building the church.
The property for the new church, to be situated on New York and New Jersey Avenues, N.W., would cost $30,000.00, all of which had to be borrowed. The church Structure would be called the ‘Church of the Holy Redeemer’, and, as the Baltimore Sun newspaper reported in 1921, the edifice would cost $80,000..Cardinal Gibbons died on March 24, 1921. His successor Archbishop Michael J. Curley dedicated the Church of the Holy Redeemer in October, 1922. The fruits of a strong Faith rooted in Hope, and a zealous commitment to Evangelize and Serve People of Color reaped a steady increase of parish members and the development of religious services and catechetical programs for the families of the parish and of the area.
On the occasion of the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the parish, November 9, 1947, the Sermon at the Mass was delivered by Rev. Patrick J. O’Connor of the faculty of The Catholic University of America. The title for the Sermon was: “Upon This Rock I will Build My Church” (Matt. 16:18). In this address Father O’Connor made some pointed comments:
“Twenty-five years ago Jesus Christ took up His actual permanent abode in this parish. From that moment and at every moment during this quarter century He has been really present in this parish as He was present in Nazareth…The story of the founding and the building of this parish is another brilliant chapter in the American Catholic saga. To care for spiritual needs of the Catholic Colored of the City of Washington, the Superior General of the Society of St. Joseph in the year 1919 appointed Father Francis Tobin to the task of organizing the parish…The far-sightedness of a Provincial, the zeal of the first Pastor and the untiring devotion and spirit of a loyal people soon fructified into what is now a familiar landmark, a monument of God . Distinguished in many ways Holy Redeemer Church was the first Church to be dedicated by the late beloved Archbishop of Baltimore and Washington upon his accession to the See…Almighty God has blessed this work and this parish with Christ-like representatives of His Divine Son. The souls under Father Charles Winckler’s charge now number 4,663…One of the notable accomplishments, one of the outstanding achievements, was the inauguration of the Perpetual Novena in honor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in the year 1936…Beginning with one service, it is necessary today to have five services to satisfy the needs of the worshjppers. Over a million people have attended the Novena Services here in the past eleven years. And, the Novena Program has proved to be a fertile soil for converts to the One True Fold of 1,554 converts who have been received into the Church in the short span of twenty-five years…We speak today of twenty-five years…We speak today of twenty-five years of a holy endeavor; we speak today of twenty-five years of rich and blessed achievement…”
Under the pastorate of Rev. Joseph Conner, SSJ, the Holy Redeemer Grade School was open in September 1955, staffed by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. Three Holy Family Sisters from New Orleans, LA joined our School in 1989. In July 2007, Holy Redeemer School united in a partnership with the University Of Notre Dame in Indiana to become a MAGNIFICAT SCHOOL.
The importance of Catholic Education was central to the building of the Church and the Catechetical Faith formation of adults and children of the parish. A commitment to the Church of the Holy Redeemer and a passion to become self-sustaining drove the activities of the parishioners, in order to pay off the Bank notes on the borrowed money and to raise new revenue for building a parish Catholic School. The School was built in two phases: The first four grades of the Elementary School opened in September, 1955; the second four grades opened in the following year. A Kindergarten and Early Childhood programs were added in later years.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament staffed the Catholic School from 1955 until 1981. This Religious Community of Women was founded by Mother Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia, to evangelize families and to teach Indian and African-American children and youth. A relationship between Holy Redeemer Church and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had existed from the founding years of the parish. In a written Agreement between the Religious Order and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Mother Katharine gifted $8,000.00 “…to aid in the erection of a church in Washington, D.C. to be used perpetually…for the education in Religion and secular knowledge for Colored People…”
When the staffing of holy Redeemer School by the Sisters ended in 1981, the Religious of the Sacred Heart and, later, the Sisters of the Holy Family served at the School. Since 1990 a Lay Principal and predominantly Lay teaching staff served the children and youth at Holy Redeemer School. It was re-accredited in 2004 and expanded its outreach to new families from surrounding neighborhoods in the District of Columbia and from the down-town workforce.
A new partnership with the University of Notre Dame, which began in July, 2007, gave Holy Redeemer Catholic School a status as a MAGNIFICAT SCHOOL. This partnership between the Church, the Archdiocese of Washington and the University’s MAGNIFICAT program strengthened the School’s Catholic Identity and upgraded programs and services to benefit teaching staff and students. Catholic and non-Catholic children were welcomed at the school. The originating Vision for the School to provide excellent education in the secular disciplines and to shape Christian character in all the students prevailed
On May 25, 1972, the parish celebrated fifty years of existence. In 1994, due to the shortage of priests, the Josephite Fathers had to withdraw from the parish. The Archdiocese of Washington assumed responsibility for the parish and assigned a diocesan priest, Rev. David A. Bava, to be pastor.
Throughout its 90 years of existence since its founding in 1919, parishioners of Holy Redeemer have always shown determination in the Catholic Faith, loyalty to the Church and service to the surrounding Community.
In the Fall of 2012, Holy Redeemer Parish received into its membership former members of the St. Aloysius Gonzaga parish. The Pastor of Holy Redeemer has oversight for the spiritual needs of the people at both church sites and for individuals in the newly extended geographical boundaries.