Nestled deep within the GW campus, with its fire-engine red doors and beautiful brick walls, St. Mary’s is both a spiritual home for students and residents and an architectural treasure. Although it is currently sandwiched between Hillel and the Health and Wellness Center on 23rd Street, it has managed to keep its independence and its identity.
The Episcopal church, completed in 1886, is an architectural classic designed by James Renwick, who also designed the Smithsonian Institute building and the Renwick Gallery. St. Mary’s has a long history and plenty of traditions stemming from its historic building and rich worship life. But since the church closed for repairs and the rector left for another position in fall 2001, the congregation of about 80 parishioners has had to rely on itself.
Without a permanent pastor to lead the congregation both spiritually and administratively, Bradford Tatum, the church’s senior warden, calls the shots concerning the everyday hustle and bustle at St. Mary’s. It’s up to Tatum to keep the order of the church congregation intact while leading the vestry (the church’s governing body) in it’s quest to refurbish the church, find a new rector and increase membership. The board members are all volunteers – there’s no spotlight, no round of applause and especially no paycheck in the mail. Instead, the reward is something deeper – knowing that they’re preserving a historical institution and keeping their community alive, with the hopes of instilling their values and faith in others.
The congregation of St. Mary’s has been like a family for Tatum, as it has been for many others, but he also works alongside his true family – his wife Anna is the church historian.
Anna Tatum, a lifetime resident of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood and member of St. Mary’s, can tell you all you’d ever need to know and then some about the history of the church. She has participated in almost every event the church has held during her lifetime, beginning with her christening at age three. Anna Tatum’s goal is simple: to preserve for future generations the history of the church, and it is a rich one, marked by its founding congregation of freed slaves, its momentous construction and its role providing refreshments for thirsty protesters during Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
The church’s current repairs project became necessary in fall 2001, when “some decorative work fell down,” Anna Tatum said. “When we looked into repairing it, they said that there was termite infestation.”
The church then had to close for safety reasons while repairs were made.
Bradford Tatum said the vestry is looking forward to reopening of St. Mary’s main building by next Easter.
Working along side the Tatums on the vestry is Daisy Sewell, with enough spunk and vivacity to run St. Mary’s by herself. She may not be the de facto person in charge, but she has quite a few responsibilities on her plate as St. Mary’s treasurer. Like so many others on the staff, Sewell has spent every period in her life, from childhood to her golden years, with St. Mary’s. Sewell said that St. Mary’s always inspires her to carry on with her daily life.
Sewell, the Tatums and the rest of the vestry are still involved in the process of selecting a new priest to lead the congregation.
“We have a whole process where we decide what we want in a priest, then send that list off (to the diocese), and we compare lists,” said Anna Tatum. She wasn’t sure how long the process would take but said she felt the congregation was doing fine so far.
During the transitional period, St. Mary’s hope lies more than ever in the children and young adults who attend services. Without new members, communities like the one at St. Mary’s inevitably fade away.
While everyone at the church interacts with the younger segment of the congregation, Rhoda McLeese-Smith is a trusted confidant for many. As the director of the Sunday school, she has had the opportunity to spend time with many of the enrolled students, and she works side by side with GW student Megan Warther to improve upon their role in the community.
St. Mary’s is a small church community, and as some of its leaders grow older, it has begun to reach out to GW students as well as to the Foggy Bottom community. A new chapter of campus ministry is blossoming at St. Mary’s, thanks to Warther, a junior majoring in international affairs. She was lucky enough to receive a scholarship from St. Mary’s last year, funded by a plot of land that St. Mary’s sold to GW in 2000 for the current Health and Wellness Center site. The terms of the scholarship require Warther to instate and oversee a new college-centered program involving service projects in the D.C. community. There are only a few students actively involved so far – 10 total – but each week more and more manage to trickle in the beautiful wooden doors of the church complex for the services currently held in the parish hall.
Warther has big plans for the community, including caring for the shut-ins of the congregation. Most importantly, she wants to give something back to the community and the church that has already given her so much.
Warther said that St. Mary’s has provided her with a spiritual center in D.C., “one that (she’s) been looking for (and) can’t find anywhere else.”
“(Young people) need church just as much as we need them,” Sewell said, referring to the sense of community that St. Mary’s provides. For many of the members, the future of St. Mary’s does not lie in its landmark building or its proud history, but in the future generations that will call it home.