Historical Resume of St Joseph's Church
The story of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, VA began long before the groundbreaking ceremony in 1915. It is a story of sacrifice, dedication, and faith that began with the Black Catholics of Northern Virginia who sought within the Catholic Church a place of their own where they could express their culture and Christian needs.
In the early 1900's, Black Catholics of Northern Virginia attended St. Mary's in Alexandria, the first Catholic Church in Virginia, where they worshipped from an alcove in the back of the church. They also were meeting separately in St. Mary's Lyceum on Duke Street with Father Charles F. Hannigan, a Josephite priest who traveled weekly to Alexandria from St. Joseph's mission house in Richmond.
By this time, it was evident that Black Catholics in Northern Virginia needed a church of their own. Mr. Thomas Blair, referred to by many as the "Father of Saint Joseph's Church," called together a group to develop plans for a new church. Assisting in this effort were Miss Katie Boarman, Miss Carrie Crouch, Mr. John Johnson and Mr. John Parker. They obtained permission from The Most Reverend Denis J. O'Connell, Bishop of Richmond, to build a mission church. With the help and guidance of Father Hannigan and the Josephites, they set about to make their dreams a reality.
Although the will and spirit to build a church were present, the potential members of the new church were far from wealthy. In fact, they were among the poorest of Alexandria's residents. But the spirit of community was strong, and the people began to work long and hard to raise funds to build their church. They sacrificed out-of-pocket and engaged in a variety of fundraising activities that included bake sales, dances, picnics, plays, and suppers.
In the meantime, Father Hannigan raised the interest of Mother Katherine Drexel, Founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. A member of a wealthy Catholic family from Philadelphia, Katherine Drexel had devoted her life and money to the support of Black and Indian communities in the South and the West. Through the Blessed Sacramanet Sisters, Mother Katherine donated $8,000.00 toward the construction of the mission church in Alexandria. At that time this was no small sum. For her generosity, the names of Mother Katherine and members of her family, along with other early donors, are memorialized on a brass plaque in the church vestibule.
In 1914, Father Hannigan, with the help of Father Henry J. Cutler, pastor of St. Mary's Church, purchased land on the corner of North Columbus and Wythe Streets as teh site for the church. Hen engaged an architect and began to formulate plans for the building of an English Gothic style church.
On June 11, 1915, the Josephite Superior General appointed Father Joseph J. Kelly, S.S.J., as Saint Joseph's first pastor. Ground was broken October 8, 1915, and the cornerstone was laid by Bishop O'Connell six weeks later on November 21st. On May 14, 1916, the Sunday within the Octave of St. Joseph's patronage the church was dedicated under the title of Saint Joseph. The dream was a mission church for the Black Catholics of Northern Virginia had come true.
Still, much work remained to be done. Through the efforts of the parishioners and Father Kelly, progress continued. A temporary school was opened in the church basement in 1916, and the rectory was built in 1921. Father Kelly had lived in what is now the altar boys' sacristy all that time. A new, four-room school building was dedicated on October 23, 1931, and the Oblate Sisters of Providence, who commuted daily from Washington, D.C., until 1949 when they moved to Alexandria, staffed the school until it closed in 1969.
This record of achievment is a testament to the dedication of the parishioners and to the dedication of the parishioners and to the support they gave to Father Kelly during his 21 years as pastor.
In 1967, the Bishop of Richmond redesignated Saint Joseph's from a mission church for Black Catholics to a parish church with territorial boundaries. By that time, many of the descendants of the African American Catholic families who had helped build the church had no longer lived within the new boundaries, but they remained devoted members of Saint Joseph's. Even today, these family ties run wide and deep and, along with the names of Blair, Boarman, Crouch, Johnson, and Parker endure as an indelible part of the history of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church. The predominantly Black parish is a warm and open haven whose mission is to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, preach the Good News and defend the oppressed."
The members of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church continue to work faithfully to support all religious, financial and social activities within the parish and the Alexandria community. They still possess and come to hear what Bishop Denis J. O'Connell described at the dedication as "the pure and unadulterated words of Jesus Christ." They look back with pride on 75 years of community and spiritual growth. As a family, they look ahead with confidence to the continued celebration of their Catholic faith and the knowledge that they are in one spirit.
To see a timeline of the Josephites founding, please visit here!
"For the Love of God and the Good of His People"