The story of St. Joseph Church in Alexandria, Virginia, began long before the ground-breaking ceremony in 1915.
Before 1915, Black Catholics attended St. Mary’s Church in Alexandria and were ministered to under the segregated conditions of the era.
Father Charles F. Hannigan, SSJ, journeyed when possible from Richmond, Virginia, to minister and teach Catechism to Black Catholics who assembled at St. Mary’s Lyceum.
It became evident that Black Catholics in Northern Virginia needed a church of their own. In 1913, Mr. Thomas Blair, a sexton at St. Mary’s referred to by many as the “Father of Saint Joseph’s Church,” formed a committee which developed plans and obtained permission from Richmond Bishop Denis J. O’Connell to establish and build a parish church.
Potential members of the new parish were among the poorest of Alexandria’s residents. But community spirit was strong and they worked long and hard to raise money, holding a variety of fund-raising activities, from bake sales to dances.
In the meantime, Father Hannigan caught the interest of Mother Katharine Drexel, founder and Superior General of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, Philadelphia, PA., who devoted her life and money to the support of Black and Indian missions in the South and West. Through a generous contribution from Mother Katharine, construction of the new church became a reality.
In 1914, property was purchased at the corner of North Columbus and Wythe Streets as the site for the new church. On June 11, 1915, the Josephite Superior General appointed Father Joseph J. Kelly, SSJ, as the first pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish, thus officially establishing the new parish in Alexandria.
Ground was broken for the new church on October 8, 1915. Six weeks later, Bishop O’Connell laid the cornerstone for the English Gothic-style church building. On May 14, 1916, the bishop dedicated the church under the title “Saint Joseph.” The dream of a parish for Black Catholics in Northern Virginia had come true.
Father Kelly lived in what is now the work sacristy until the rectory was built in 1921.
Services were held in the main church, while the basement was a parish hall in which a temporary school was opened in October 1916.
The four-room school building was dedicated on October 23, 1931, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who staffed the parish school until it closed in 1969, commuted daily, under trying conditions, from Washington, DC, until 1949 when they moved into a house on the north side of the school. The parish will be forever grateful to the many Oblate Sisters of Providence who sacrificed so much as they staffed the school and educated so many people of the parish and the City of Alexandria.
This record of achievement is a testament to the dedication of the parishioners and their support to Father Kelly during his 21 years as pastor.
In 1967, St. Joseph’s was re-designated from an ethnic parish for Black Catholics to a parish with territorial boundaries.
Saint Joseph’s traditionally has welcomed people of all races and nationalities, and many are drawn to the friendly atmosphere and the African-American talent for liturgical expression. The parish persists as an open and warm haven. Regardless of the boundaries, Black Catholics, including descendants of the families who helped build the church, continue to worship at St. Joseph’s.
Saint Joseph’s Society of the Sacred Heart, “the Josephites,” is the only religious community of priests and brothers who have served in this parish since its very beginning.
Timeline of the Josephites
The Ordination of Josephites 2013
“How Great is Our God!”
Priestly People, Kingly People, Holy People
St. Joseph’s has been honored with the ordination of Father Hyginus, along with 6 others on Saturday, June 1, 2013 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Details of this holy occasion are here: http://www.josephites.org/featured-banner/josephites-welcome-seven-new-priests