What parish is the U.S. Capitol in?

Continuing our recent American government theme, let’s take a look at the two parishes equidistant from the United States Capitol.

There are two Catholic churches that serve the residents and workers of Capitol Hill. On the House side (south) there is St. Peter’s, and on the Senate side (north) there is St. Joseph’s. They are each equidistant from the Capitol.

Only one of these — St. Joseph’s — actually contains the Capitol within its boundaries.

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Parish boundary map from the chancery of the Archdiocese of Washington, issued 1949. Photo from the parish website.

The cornerstone was laid in 1868, in the wake of the Civil War, when rising numbers of Germans were immigrating to the U.S. It was meant to be a spiritual home for all the new German-Americans.

The architect hailed from Köln (Cologne), Germany, and so modeled the church on the cathedral there. (Note: it doesn’t look anything like the actual Cologne Cathedral.)

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By FarragutfulOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
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By FarragutfulOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

To the southeast of Capitol Hill is St. Peter’s Church.

It is well-positioned to serve workers coming from the House side of the Capitol building and surrounding areas. It was founded in 1820, and the current church was dedicated in 1890.

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The parish website tells us these interesting stories:

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By FarragutfulOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

In May, 1664, the colonial Maryland land grant office issued a patent for a 400 acre tract covering the Capitol Hill area. It went to a whimsical gentleman called Francis Pope. He called his tract “Rome” and a stream at the foot of the hill the “Tiber.” Thus he could say that “Pope was at home at Rome by the Tiber.” Later many local residents, George Washington among them, thought the name Tiber was too pretentious and called it Goose Creek. But the name Tiber stuck, and the stream exists by that name today, underground (where it cost taxpayers millions as engineers struggled to divert it from the foundations of the Rayburn House Office Building).

In 1670 the ground on the top of the hill was acquired by a pioneer Catholic settler of Maryland, Thomas Notley. In honor of the ancient Benedictine foundation in Dorsetshire, England, his ancestral home, Notley named the property Cerne Abbey Manor.

Thus St. Peter’s found itself on a site named once for the seat of Catholicism and again for a place trod by storied medieval monks; all this in addition, of course, to being in the very cockpit of national history.

From another standpoint, St. Peter’s can now be seen as a “mother of churches” in the city of Washington. Within what was once the parish boundaries are located St. Dominic’s St. Joseph’s, St. Teresa’s, Holy Comforter, Church of the Assumption, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Francis Xavier, and parts of St. Aloysius, St. Martin, and St. Francis de Sales.

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By FarragutfulOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Because of the neighborhood, there aren’t that many residents in either parish. But their liturgical life is really vibrant because so many people who work nearby stop in for daily Mass, Confession, or a holy hour after work. These two churches have a vital ministry.

It’s no coincidence that the two churches closest to the seat of government have the patrons of St. Peter and St. Joseph. The latter watched over Christ and is invoked as a protector of families and of the Church. The former received the keys to the kingdom of Heaven from Christ, a scene depicted in the tympanum above the doors.

Stop right now and say a prayer for our elected officials!

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