History of the Diocese

Episcopal Diocese of Washington
About the Diocese - History of the Diocese

A history of the
Episcopal Diocese of Washington

In the beginning

The history of the Anglican Church in what is now the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (the District of Columbia and the Maryland Counties of Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s) predates the establishment of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., and the president who gave the city its name.

The roots of the diocese date back to March 25, 1634 – now known as Maryland Day – when the first English colonists arrived at St. Clement’s Island aboard two ships; the Ark and the Dove. (The ships had set sail from the Isle of Wight on St. Clement’s Day the previous November; St. Clement is the patron saint of mariners.)

With no ordained Anglican clergymen among them, the colonists conducted their own services in the first chapel, established on the mainland on Trinity (now Smith) Creek in 1638. This chapel was later moved to St. Mary’s City  and is the predecessor to the present-day parish of Trinity, St. Mary’s.

As settlement spread west in what is now St. Mary’s County, a new political subdivision, St. George’s Hundred, was established in 1638 and an Anglican place of worship was built on a site known as Poplar Hill between that date and 1642. The Rev. William Wilkinson arrived in 1650 to serve the congregation of St. George’s (now St. George’s, Valley Lee) the chapel at St. Mary’s City, and possibly other locations.

Sometime between 1639 and 1641 Thomas Gerard, proprietor of St. Clements’s Island, built a chapel for his wife, her friends and servants. This was the predecessor of the present-day parishes of Christ, Chaptico and All Saints, Oakley.


As settlement moved up the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers, Anglicans built small wooden places of worship along the way. Of those built between about 1655 and 1692, the following survive as active parishes of the diocese; All Faith, Charlotte Hall; St. John’s, Broad Creek (above); St. Paul’s, Baden; Christ Church, Port Tobacco; Christ Church, Wayside and Christ Church, Durham.

Colonial days and the Revolutionary War

In 1691, Maryland was proclaimed a Royal Colony, and on May 10, 1692 the Maryland Assembly passed an act establishing the Church of England as the colony’s officially sanctioned denomination. Anglican congregations thrived during this era, and numerous brick churches were built. St. Paul’s, Rock Creek (originally St. George’s Parish, established in 1712), is one of the surviving churches from this time.

But the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), threw the church into chaos: The clergy, ordained in England, had taken an oath of allegiance to the king, which conflicted with the Oath of Fidelity required by the Assembly. By 1779 their numbers in this area had dwindled from 53 to just 15. Divisions and conflict arose among largely “loyalist” clergy and overwhelmingly “patriot” parishioners. (In 1776 the rector of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek – the Rev. Alexander Williamson, chose to remain loyal to the king and returned to England. The parish struggled to survive, and was eventually revived in 1810 with help from St. John’s, Georgetown and Francis Scott Key.)

In 1780, Anglican clergy and laymen began to hold conferences at Washington College in Chestertown and at Annapolis under the leadership of the college’s founder, the Rev. William Smith, which eventually led to the creation of the Diocese of Maryland.

Joining forces with Anglicans in eight other states, the group adopted the name The Protestant Episcopal Church. Four other American dioceses elected bishops who had been consecrated in Great Britain. Smith was elected Bishop of Maryland at the convention of 1783, and a request was sent to the Bishop of London for consecration. This was denied.

In 1789, representatives from nine dioceses met in Philadelphia to ratify the church's constitution, and the Episcopal Church was formally separated from the Church of England.

Clergy were no longer required to accept the supremacy of the British monarch. A revised version of the Book of Common Prayer was written, and the church was incorporated as “the first Anglican Province outside the British Isles.”

In 1792 Thomas John Claggett was chosen to be the Bishop of Maryland. Claggett was the first Episcopal bishop to be consecrated in America.

Washington churches and the Civil War

Washington, D.C., was founded in 1800. Although it was the nation’s capital, it was initially a bit of a backwater, overshadowed by Georgetown and Alexandria, its older neighbors.

The Civil War (1861-1865) changed all that. Washington served as the military headquarters for the war effort and was a critical staging point for the Union army. The federal government expanded to meet its war-time duties, and people poured into the city to enlist in the Army or to work in the hospitals, factories and supply depots that sprang up to serve the soldiers on the front. In the 10 years from 1860 to 1870, the population of the city doubled to more than 130,000.

Some of the key players of that era were members of local Episcopal congregations. Epiphany, D.C. (above) had connections to both sides of the conflict. (Dating from 1842, Epiphany is one of two downtown congregations founded before the Civil War. The other is St. John’s, Lafayette Square, established in 1815. St. John's, known as the "Church of the Presidents," is the church where President Abraham Lincoln attended his first service after arriving in Washington as president-elect. While not a member of the parish, he attended many services there, slipping quietly into pew No. 89 at the back of the nave.)

Jefferson Davis - a U.S. Senator before he became president of the Confederacy - rented pew No. 14 at Epiphany. Three of his children were confirmed at the church. The Rev. Randolph McKim, Epiphany's rector, officiated at the funeral of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's daughter, Mary Lee Custis.

High-ranking Union officers also attended the church. Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant each witnessed marriages at Epiphany, and Lincoln attended the March 6, 1862 funeral of Gen. Frederick W. Lander.

For six months in 1862, the church was used as a hospital. And on April 14, 1865 - Joseph K. Barnes, Surgeon General of the Army and a parishioner at Epiphany, pronounced Lincoln dead after his assassination. Another parishioner, Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton, also was at Lincoln's deathbed and proclaimed: “Now he belongs to the ages.” Stanton had taken over pew No. 14 after Davis' departure. Epiphany's rector, the Rev. Charles Henry Hall, was one of a group of four clergy who presided at Lincoln's White House funeral.

Emancipation and the historically black congregations

Before the Civil War, there were no black Episcopal churches; just slave chapels or galleries in white churches. After the war, there was a push to establish churches and civic organizations.

A group of newly emancipated Episcopalians began to meet for church in a former wooden Union Army Chapel, later transported from Kalorama Hospital to land in Foggy Bottom donated by a parishioner from St. John's, Lafayette Square. (Epiphany, D.C., also offered financial and clerical support to St. Mary’s, Foggy Bottom.)

St. Mary's (originally named St. Barnabas') began its life as a congregation in June 1867. In 1882 a parish hall and school were built, and in 1887 the red-brick church, designed by architect James Renwick, of Smithsonian Castle and St. Patrick's Cathedral fame, was completed.

The ethnicity of the church founders is honored in a triptych window above the altar, in which the central panel depicts St. Simon of Cyrene, an African, bearing the cross of Christ.

The church operated as a mission of St. John's until it became a parish in its own right in 1920. But before this, in 1873, the burgeoning congregation had divided, with about half the members joining the Rev. Alexander Crummell to found St. Luke's, D.C., – Washington’s first independent black congregation.

Later, Calvary, D.C. (established in a store front in1901) and St. George’s, D.C. (born in a living room on Oct. 29, 1929 – the day of the Stock Market Crash that triggered the Great Depression, above) were established as black congregations. They are now referred to as historically black churches as they were established in the pre-Civil Rights era of racial segregation.

The Diocese of Washington is born

As Washington grew in size and stature, local Episcopalians began to call for a cathedral to be built. A new bishop also was needed to serve the growing number of congregations between upper Montgomery County and Point Lookout in southern Maryland.

On Jan. 6, 1893, Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia, allowing it to establish a cathedral and institutions of higher learning. The charter, signed by President Benjamin Harrison, stipulated that the bishop of the Episcopal diocese that included the District of Columbia serve as the foundation’s chair.

Two years later, in May 1895, the Diocese of Maryland was divided, and the Diocese of Washington was born. (This was finalized at the Diocese of Maryland’s annual convention, held at Epiphany, D.C. Epiphany contributed a quarter of the funds needed to found the Diocese of Washington).

The new diocese spanned 1,864 square miles and included a mix of urban and rural parishes in the District of Columbia and four Maryland counties: Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s.

Henry Yates Satterlee was elected as the first bishop of Washington in 1895 and was consecrated in 1896. Satterlee came from New York, where he had been active in mission work to the poor in the city's Lower East Side.

Satterlee was a driving force behind the establishment of the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, commonly known as Washington National Cathedral. He was responsible for acquiring land on Mount St. Alban and overseeing its construction (St. Alban’s, D.C., established in 1854, pre-dates the cathedral.)

Washington National Cathedral’s foundation stone was laid on Sept. 29, 1907 – President Theodore Roosevelt gave an address – and construction was completed 83 years later, in 1990. Washington National Cathedral celebrated its centennial in 2007.

The Diocese of Washington today

Since Satterlee’s 1896 consecration there have been eight Episcopal Bishops of Washington: Alfred Harding (1909-1923); James E. Freeman (1923-1943); Angus Dun (1944-1962); William F. Creighton (1962-1977); John T. Walker (1977-1989) -- the first African American to serve as diocesan bishop; Ronald H. Haines (1990-2000); and John Bryson Chane (2002-2011).

On June 18, 2011, the diocese elected the Rev. Dr. Mariann Budde to serve as its ninth bishop. She was consecrated and installed on Nov. 12, 2011, and is the first woman to serve as diocesan bishop in the Diocese of  Washington. (Two of the first female bishops – Barbara C. Harris and Jane Holmes Dixon – have served as assistant and suffragan bishops, respectively.)

Today, the diocese has more than 40,000 members in 88 parishes and Washington National Cathedral. It has one mission, St. Barnabas Church of the Deaf, three university chaplaincies, seven Latino congregations and a new Sierra Leonean Worshipping Community. Twenty Episcopal schools also are affiliated with the diocese, including the newly established Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, a tuition-free school for low income boys in Anacostia.

The diocese has an annual operating budget of around $4 million and is administered from Episcopal Church House on Mount St. Alban in the District of Columbia. 

This history was compiled by Lucy Chumbley and is intended to be a living document. Please write if you have additions, corrections or insights to share.

Related Links

Chronological List of Churches

Seal of the Diocese of Washington

A Guide to the Historic Churches of Southern Maryland

A Brief History of the Diocese

Historical Resources

The Historical Society of the Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland:
History past to present day

Washington National Cathedral:
A historical timeline

Ringing the Changes:
The Bells of Washington National Cathedral
Washington Window Vol. 77, No. 1, January 2008

Foundation of faith:
Washington National Cathedral kicks off its centennial celebrations
Washington Window  Vol. 76, No. 8, July/August 2007

Soul Pilgrimage Tour:
A closer look at the diocese's historically black congregations
Washington Window Vol. 78, No. 8, November/December 2009

Tale of two cemeteries:
Congressional and Rock Creek have been offering peace for two centuries
Washington Window Vol. 72, No. 6, October 2003

Piecing the past together:
Parish records offer a window on the past
Washington Window Vol. 80, No. 1, January/February 2011

The church at the crossroads:
St. Alban’s, D.C., celebrates its sesquicentennial
Washington Window Vol. 73, No. 4, March 2005

Moving stones:
Christ Church, La Plata, reenacts its history to honor 100th anniversary
Washington Window Vol. 73, No. 7, June 2004

Ascension prepares to celebrate 50 years:
Former rector Chuck Daugherty looks back on Lexington Park congregation’s early days
Washington Window Vol. 73, No. 10, October 2004

Baxter Remembers St. Mark's
St. Mark's, Capitol Hill builds future on solid ground
Washington Window Vol. 73, No. 5, April 2004

Epiphany’s historic parish is going strong:
Church that predates the Civil War offers a glimpse into the city’s past (pdf, page 7)
Washington Window Volume 72, No. 4 June 2003

Epiphany bells:
Ringing out the good news
Washington Window Vol. 77, No. 1, January 2008

Breaking ground:
St. Nicholas’, Darnestown blesses the site where its new building will stand (pdf, page 1)
Washington Window, Vol. 76 No. 1, January 2007

Into the Light:
St. Mary's Chapel gets new windows
Washington Window Vol. 72, No. 4, June 2003

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