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Then & Now: Anacostia's Saint Teresa

As songs of praise emanate from numerous houses of worship in Anacostia each Sunday morning, one church stands out as a part of living history. It has experienced reorganization, schisms, and change, but it still faithfully anchors the same corner as it did more than 130 years ago.

Saint Teresa of Avila in Anacostia. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Saint Teresa of Avilla Avila, at the northwest corner of 13th and V streets SE, is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in DC east of the Anacostia River. It was originally part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, because the Vatican did not make the City of Washington a separate archdiocese until 1939. St. Teresa, in fact, is older than the Archdiocese of Washington by more than a half century.

The new church was greeted with great enthusiasm even before it was finished being built. An April 1879 Washington Post article describing the laying of its cornerstone also reports of a celebratory parade, saying:

The route was determined on as follows: from City hall, down Four-and-a-half street to Pennsylvania avenue, thence to St. Peter's church, where the visiting clergy and others will join the procession, thence across the navy yard bridge to Uniontown. With regard to the formation of the line, it is thought that it will be the same on St. Patrick's day, except that there will be five divisions instead of four, the colored societies making the fifth.
When Saint Teresa opened its doors in the fall of 1879 Uniontown had a hotel, post office, police substation with mounted patrols while Henry A. Griswold's single-horse streetcar ran every 20 minutes. Frederick Douglass, the United States Marshal for the city lived just down the street.

According to The Anacostia Story. by the turn of the 20th century black parishioners were dissatisfied with the limited role they were permitted; African Americans were relegated to celebrate Mass in the church basement.

In response a group under the name "Mission of St. Teresa" organized to establish a separate church and parish for African American Catholics. Others changed their affiliation and went crosstown to Saint Augustine, the city's mother church for black Catholics since 1858, four years before the city's emancipation.

By 1920 ground was dug, dirt was moved, cement was turned and cornerstone laid for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church on Morris Road SE, on the grounds of Fort Stanton.

According to Cultural Tourism DC, this was the second formal division of St. Teresa's. The first occurred when white parishioners left to establish Assumption Catholic Church in what had been the village hall for Congress Heights at 611 Alabama Avenue SE on April 2, 1916.

Saint Teresa today. Photo by the author.

As the neighborhood's demographics began to change in the 1960s and the neighborhood became increasingly African American, the congregation of Saint Teresa changed as well. In 1976 Saint Teresa received its first African-American pastor. On a recent visit, with the exception of some college students, the overwhelming majority of worshipers are African American.

Today, Saint Teresa is one of more than a dozen historic churches in greater Anacostia still going strong, an important and familiar neighbor for parts of three centuries.

Excerpts from this post originally appeared in a 2010 article for East of the River.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Just a note - it's "Avila" not "Avilla"

by NativeSon on Apr 6, 2012 4:12 pm • linkreport

Interesting write up and history. I just bought a house a block away.

Between this church and the two on 14th st right at V seems to be a little church district. I think the Agape Church (2000 14th st se) has the most interesting of the physical buildings, although it's a victim of extensive deferred maintenance.

by H Street LL on Oct 22, 2012 11:20 am • linkreport

I attended St Teresa school second thru eighth grades, graduating with the class of '56. To the best of my recollection there were no black students attending the school at that time. Father Clark was in charge, his assistant was Father Yannone. The exterior of the church looked very much like your picture. The interior however was quite different. I received my First Communion and made my first confession there.
I don't know why but St Teresa's just crossed my mind.
A long time ago!

by Robert A Kennedy on Aug 27, 2014 11:00 pm • linkreport

I attended St Teresa's grades 1through six. I remember Father Clark. The education was excellent. We moved to Maryland prior to my 7th grade. That was in 1954. The school was all white at that time. I co mmend my Catholic experience that gave me a hunger for God...though I am no longer Catholic now. The time at St. Teresa's was a good time.

by Lynn Hill on Nov 22, 2014 6:52 pm • linkreport

I was a parishioner at st Teresa when I lived in Anacostia from 1951 to 1968 when we moved to suitland. It was a beautiful, spiritual place where we attended mass on Sunday and all other religious occasions. I can still see father Clark saying mass and hearing confession. A beautiful memory of my days attending st Teresa grade school nearby.

by Sharon Winkler on Dec 11, 2014 7:17 pm • linkreport

I lived at 1663 U Street S.E. from 1954 till 1967.I went to Saint Teresa and Kramer junior High. I loved South East and would not have wanted to have lived any were else. We had the little and big woods at the end of U and Fendel Street and the river to fish in and the flats to play baseball at.There are many more things I could list I just hope everone feels the same about there home town.

Anthony Long

by Anthony Long on Dec 16, 2014 3:05 pm • linkreport

Our family lived at 1258 Pleasant Street S.E. which was the last street intersecting with 13th St. exactly 3 blocks in front of Saint Teresa's Church and we all attended St. Teresa's school until we graduated and all of my brothers and I then attended Archbishop John Caroll HS. Our family finally moved and we sold our home in 1980 when I bought my home on Capitol Hill just across the 11th Street bridge. We had left our home in 1975 but did want to sell it so we kept it so that my brothers Eddie and Mario had a place to stay in the city on nights when they had to attend Superior Court downtown on early mornings as they were all DC Metropolitan Policemen until they retired in the early 90's. Our memories of St. Teresa's and Anacostia are wonderful ones where we all knew everyone in our neighborhood. Although ive always remained a district resident I have never loved a part of D.C. more than our little place in Anacostia. We even stay in touch with our old classmates some 55 years later because that's the kind of town we were born in! To this very day, every one of us is proud to tell the world that we were from Anacostia and Saint Teresa's and never make excuses for it. D.C. Proud!

by Big Al Sevilla on Feb 10, 2015 9:38 pm • linkreport

My former mother and father in law (both deceased) were married at St. Teresa's in 1934. While they were both white, my mother in law was not a Catholic but was raised as a Baptist. Therefore, they were not allowed to be married IN the church but rather had their ceremony in the rectory. I know she always felt bad about that but this 'mixed marriage' as it was called was happy and lasted until both their deaths. Fortunatley, times have changed and our church can now be more inclusive.

Thank you for this wonderful glimpse of the past which is helping in our family's genealogy.

by Maureen on May 25, 2015 11:33 am • linkreport

I too grew up on U St, SE. 1655 to be exact and Anthony's little brother, Bernie was my best friend. I attended St. Teresa in the early 60' and church and remember Father Clark clearly, as I do Sister Paul Anna and I believe,Sister Louis? We moved in 63 I think it was. I had 6 older brother's and sisters and one younger sister and we all attended St Teresa. My Dad worked there as well as St Elizabeth. I remember when the Beatles hit big and we would line up at the door and when the bell went off we would run to Max's little store to buy all his Beatles cards. I have great was a time and place where you knew your neighbors...and what ever happened to front porches?

by Tom Owens Sr on Jun 13, 2015 12:34 am • linkreport

Grew up at 1257 U. St. Received Batism, Communion and Confirmation at St. Teresa's. All by Father Clarke. I was May Queen attendant in 67, along with Dottie Schwind. Michele Meteyer was May Queen. Graduated from 8th grade in 1967. Went to La Reine H.S. for a year. Moved out of D.C. during the riots. Graduated from Gar-field H.S. always wondered what ever became of friends Cherie Norris and Carmen Gastilio. Wonderful memories
by Vicki Burch Murphy

by Vicki Burch Murphy on Jul 2, 2015 3:45 pm • linkreport

Me and my 3 siblings all attended St Teresa's at some point in our grade school lives between 1956 and 1967. My mother, "Miss Francis" taught 2nd grade there for many years. St Teresa's was a beautiful church and the neighborhood a wonderful place to grow up. Anyone remember roller skating on the "island" in front of the firehouse? I believe there is a Facebook page for St Teresa's. If not, there SHOULD be!

by Beth Freund on Jul 2, 2015 5:02 pm • linkreport

I had Ms. Francis for 2nd grade...we moved after that year..I think it was 63

by Tom Owens Sr on Jul 2, 2015 5:07 pm • linkreport

please let me know if anyone knows whereabouts of Jont & Flo O'Donell?familt names, Warren, Goings and O'Donnell. Great pic and history on Father John

by I attended and Miss Frances was my 1st grade teacher. My family lived at 1234 V. St and cousins Joni & Flo lived at 2228 Nichols Ave. The mother, grandmother, aunts, cousins also attend and were married Eunice also there on Aug 9, 2015 8:59 am • linkreport

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