New Archbishop's Life and Legacy
An overview of history of the Archdiocese of Washington
May 15, 2019
(The following is updated from a story in Catholic Impact, a publication of the Archdiocese of Washington that shows the archdiocese’s impact on the local community in the areas of Catholic education, social services and health care.)
When Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, announced plans for the Archdiocese of Washington’s 75th anniversary in 2014, he said it would be a time to look back, and look ahead.
On Pentecost Sunday, June 8, 2014, Cardinal Wuerl launched the 75th anniversary by celebrating Mass, and by convoking the final session of an Archdiocesan Synod. Catholics from the city of Washington and surrounding Maryland, from different backgrounds and walks of life, participated in preparatory meetings for the Synod, working together for nearly two years to draw up a blueprint for the archdiocese’s future outreach in the key areas of education, service, worship, community, administration and stewardship. The Synod participants examined what the Church did well in those areas, and how it could improve its outreach. The goal, the cardinal said, was “to be the best Church we can be.”
Those delegates drew on a legacy of Catholic faith that began when Maryland’s first settlers landed on St. Clement’s Island and celebrated the first Mass in the English colonies in 1634. Those pioneer Catholic colonists, along with settlers from other faiths, helped establish Maryland as the birthplace of religious freedom in the United States, and the colony’s 1649 Toleration Act was a forerunner to the Constitution’s Bill of Rights and the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.
When Pope Pius XII established the Archdiocese of Washington in 1939, it only included the District of Columbia, and the archdiocese was led by Archbishop Michael Curley, who also continued to serve as archbishop of Baltimore. Eight years later, the archdiocese was expanded to include the five surrounding counties in Maryland – St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert Prince George’s and Montgomery, and Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle was installed as the first resident archbishop of Washington in 1948.
From the time those first Catholic settlers knelt in prayer at St. Clement’s Island, the lives of the Catholic community in what is now the Archdiocese of Washington have been rooted in a foundation of prayer. People who live along city streets, in suburban neighborhoods and in the rural countryside find a spiritual home in the Archdiocese’s 139 parishes and nine missions.
Each day throughout the Archdiocese, in their homes, in small chapels, in convents, in parish churches and in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington – the largest Catholic church in North America – people begin and end their days in prayer. In the Archdiocese of Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, people pray together at daily Mass, just as people came to the cathedral to pray in thanksgiving when World War II ended, to pray in sorrow at the funeral Mass for President John F. Kennedy after the nation’s first Catholic president was assassinated, and just as people came to the cathedral to pray after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
When Cardinal Wuerl welcomed Pope Benedict XVI at the 2008 Papal Mass at the new Nationals Park in Washington, he said the congregation that prayed with the pontiff that day reflected the face of the Catholic Church in America – people who come from many lands, who speak many languages but who share one faith.
In a special way, the people of the Archdiocese of Washington reflect that face of the Church in their diversity and in their shared mission, of manifesting God’s kingdom in today’s world. The 655,000 Catholics in the Archdiocese include newly arrived immigrants from nearly every continent, and people whose ancestors immigrated here nearly four centuries ago. Each weekend, Masses are celebrated in more than 20 languages, including Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Polish, Portuguese, French and American Sign Language. Spanish-language Masses are celebrated at 38 locations to serve the nearly 270,000 Catholics of Hispanic ancestry living in the community.
The crucible of the Great Depression had shaped the faith of the first members of the newly formed Archdiocese of Washington in 1939, who soon demonstrated a spirit of generosity and sacrifice in serving their country overseas and at home during World War II. In the post-war years, many new churches and schools were built throughout the archdiocese to serve the growing Catholic population. The churches were the archdiocese’s Catholics now pray and the schools where their children now learn stand as living reminders of the faith and generosity of earlier generations of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Like their ancestors in the faith, today’s Catholics in the archdiocese continue to work for justice. In 1858, the founders of St. Augustine Church in Washington included free men and women of color and former slaves. In 1963, St. Augustine parishioners hosted and joined participants in the March on Washington, where they heard their then-Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle – a champion for racial justice who had integrated local Catholic parishes and schools – offer the invocation. Today, St. Augustine parishioners continue to sacrifice to sponsor their parish school, believing, like their parish’s founders did, that an education rooted in faith and strong academics would help their children achieve a better life and help build a better world.
Throughout the history of what is now the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic lay people, religious and priests have generously supported the work of education, social service and health care.
Catholic schools in the Washington area began when our country did. For generations, Catholic schools in the Archdiocese have educated leaders for our Church, our communities and our nation.
The newly formed Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington helped people during the Depression and now in a new millennium, Catholic Charities is the largest private social services provider in the Washington area, bringing help and hope to 143,000 people annually in 58 programs throughout Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties.
The Daughters of Charity started Providence Hospital in Washington during the Civil War years, and today it continues as one of four Catholic hospitals in the area providing state-of-the-art healthcare and millions of dollars in care to the poor each year.
Almost three decades before Pope Benedict XVI’s Mass at Nationals Park, Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass for 175,000 people at the National Mall, offering a visible sign of our unity as a Catholic family of faith.
In 2015, Pope Francis made s a pastoral visit to Washington, which included the first-ever papal address to a joint meeting of Congress, and a visit to Catholic Charities, where the pope met with the homeless and with staff and volunteers who serve them. In a Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis canonized St. Junipéro Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary to California, which marked the first canonization ever held on U.S. soil.
The Archdiocese of Washington’s 75th anniversary theme in 2014 – “Manifesting the Kingdom” – reflects the faith and service of generations of Catholics who have brought Christ’s love and hope to our community and our world.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus taught, served the poor and healed the sick, and the Archdiocese of Washington continues to carry out that work of faith today. As Cardinal Wuerl wrote in his book, Seek First the Kingdom, “Now it’s our turn, it’s yours and mine. As witnesses to Christ, his Gospel, his kingdom… each and every Catholic can make a difference.”
After Pope Francis on April 4, 2019 named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory the new archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Gregory said, “There is, as there always has been, a proud heritage of deep faith and goodness within the Archdiocese of Washington.”
Washington’s archbishop-designate said he was “bolstered by the knowledge… that together in the Lord we can move forward, neither forgetting the past nor being constrained by it. The Archdiocese of Washington is home to the poor and the powerful, neither of which readily realize they are both! You embrace a wide host of races, cultures and languages. You are young and old. I seek to be a pastor for this entire family of faith.”
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