President Lincoln and the Black Catholic Community of Washington

In Washington, D.C., Abraham Lincoln looms large as the majestic statue in the Lincoln Memorial and as small as the pennies in your hand which bear his likeness. Today, Presidents’ Day, much attention will be focused on the Great Emancipator, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of his Emancipation Proclamation.  What may not be as well-known about our 16th President is his connection to our black Catholic community here in the Archdiocese of Washington.

July 4, 2014, will mark the 150th anniversary of a key event in the history of Saint Augustine Parish (the mother church for African American Catholics in the nation’s capital) – an event in which President Lincoln played an important part. On that day in 1864, after President Lincoln had granted his permission, African American Catholics held a fundraising festival on the White House grounds that raised $1,200 for a combined school and chapel near Saint Matthew Church downtown that would become Saint Augustine Parish.

In his excellent book, The Emergence of a Black Catholic Community: St. Augustine’s in Washington, published in 1999 by The Catholic University of America Press, historian Morris MacGregor recounts how Saint Augustine traces its beginnings to 1858, when a group of free men and women of color, including former slaves, organized a free day school for 150 African American children in an old schoolhouse at a time when there were very limited educational opportunities for black children.

MacGregor noted how those founders, who included working men and women representing various trades and professions, sacrificed greatly to keep that school open, initially for three years.

By the summer of 1864, the African American Catholics who had been worshipping in the basement of Saint Matthew Church came together to raise funds for a chapel and Sunday school of their own. Gabriel Coakley, a businessman who sold seafood in Washington, had a special connection to the White House. His wife Mary was a talented seamstress who sewed dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln.

In his book, MacGregor notes how in one of the most anxious periods of the Civil War, Gabriel Coakley was able to personally meet with President Lincoln and receive first his vocal support for the festival, and later his written approval. An estimated 1,500 people attended the Independence Day gathering on the White House grounds, which included food, music, and orations by schoolchildren, and MacGregor wrote that “President Lincoln and members of his cabinet likely made a brief appearance.”

In 1876, at the site of the present-day headquarters of the Washington Post, Saint Augustine Church was dedicated as the first Catholic church for black Catholics in the city of Washington. That church would host the first National Black Catholic Congress in 1889, as African American Catholics from across the country came together to voice support for racial justice and equality.

Throughout the history of Saint Augustine Parish, its members have championed freedom, hosting marchers and participating in the 1963 March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

When Saint Augustine Parish marked its 150th anniversary in 2008, the pastor, Father Patrick Smith, noted how current parishioners sacrifice to support Saint Augustine School, just as the free men and women of color who founded the parish sacrificed to support a day school for their children in 1858.  Father Smith has also been a vocal supporter of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which transforms the lives of children who otherwise would not have a chance at an excellent education.

The school’s goal is not just to educate students’ minds, but also to prepare them for life. As a Catholic school, Saint Augustine teaches its children that they will find true freedom and meaning by following Christ and living their lives for God.  Students learn the empowering lesson that all things are possible.

As we observe Presidents’ Day this year in the midst of a renewed interest in the life and legacy of President Lincoln, we celebrate his great achievements, but as the 1864 Saint Augustine fundraising festival demonstrates, his small act of kindness in opening the grounds of the White House to a group of African-American Catholics shows he respected them as people of faith and as loyal citizens of our country. That kindness toward a fledgling faith community continues to resonate today, as Saint Augustine parishioners sacrifice so their children may have a great education and find true freedom.