St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the first separate colored Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia, was organized in 1873 by the Reverend Dr. Alexander Crummell. (Historical documents state that St. Luke’s Church was set up in 1879 as a “separate” congregation for “colored” Episcopalians with no parish boundaries). After the Civil War, an increased interest in the Episcopal Church became apparent among the colored people of the District of Columbia. Rev. Dr. Crummell was invited to leave his native city of New York and come to Washington, D.C., to minister to the spiritual needs among the colored people, particularly those who worshiped at St. Mary’s colored mission. He became known as “Missionary-at-Large” to the colored Episcopalians of the District of Columbia.
From 1873 to 1879, the original congregation of St. Luke’s was part of St. Mary’s colored mission located at 23rd Street between F and G Streets, Northwest. St. Mary’s Chapel was started by St. John’s Church in 1867 and remained under its supervision until May 1927, when it became a separate Parish.
In less than a year after beginning work in Washington, Rev. Dr. Crummell reported that he had more than 50 communicants and three Sunday Schools. These worshipers immediately supported his idea to build a large, independent Church. In contributions, there was a total of $975.51 of which $650.00 was earmarked for the new church. This $650 was the first money contributed for the building of St. Luke’s. Episcopalians were encouraged to support the building of the first Church for colored worshippers.
The Diocese of Washington’s Centennial Celebration 1896 ̶ 1995 has included the circulation of the Claggett Eucharistic Vessels throughout the Diocese. The Claggett Patens and Chalices were made from the household silver of the First Bishop of Maryland, John Thomas Claggett. He was the First Bishop to be consecrated on American soil. During this centennial year, these vessels were being sent from the Cathedral to all parishes as a reminder of our history and a sign of our unity as the Body of Christ in the Diocese. Three delegates from St. Luke’s Church received the vessels on May 7, 1995 from St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Damascus, Maryland. The vessels were then used at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist at St. Luke’s on Sunday, May 14. On May 21, the Claggett vessels were given to a delegation from Trinity Episcopal Church, Upper Marlboro.
At the request of Bishop Ronald Haines of the Washington Diocese, and in commemoration of the Diocesan Centennial, each Church was invited to send quilt squares depicting its history to the Cathedral. Thus, the “Story of the Quilt Squares: The Legacy of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell Lives On.”
The “Quilt Square” illustrates the founding of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C. by the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell in 1873. It also cites examples of parish leadership. The Rev. Dr. J. Carlton Hayden of Howard University wrote an article which appeared in the January̶ February 1976 issue of the Washington Diocese on the life of Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell. He stated that Rev Dr. Crummell was “always concerned with race leadership.” He also indicated that “his belief in the goodness and greatness of his people is his legacy to all of us.”
Outstanding among the gifts of the Mid-Day Activities group is the Quilt Square showing the continuation of Rev. Dr. Crummell’s legacy by depicting pioneers in leadership on both local and national levels. Illustrations on the Quilt Square include the text:
- First Black Episcopal Church in Washington, D. C. – 1873
- First Black Female Senior Warden in the United States – 1942
- First Black Bishop from Washington, D. C. – 1962
- First Black Senator since Reconstruction – 1966
- First Black Diocesan President of the Daughters of the King – 1970
- First Female Rector called to St. Luke’s – 1999
By August 1875 the members, Rector and friends in the Diocese had raised sufficient funds to purchase three lots on 15th Street, N.W. at Sampson Street, later Madison Street, and now known as Church Street. Ground was broken and the foundation was laid in July 1876 for the new Church that would be called St. Luke’s. The new Church would be built of blue stone quarried from the Potomac River. Rev. Dr. Crummell had lived in England for a while and planned the new Church, which was to be Gothic in design, to conform with the one he attended while there. Mr. Calvin T.S. Brent, the first colored architect of the District of Columbia was engaged to draw the plans for the Church. Rev Dr. Crummell requested that Mr. Daniel Murray, Assistant Librarian at the Library of Congress, act as Marshall for the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone. On November 9, 1876, the cornerstone of St. Luke’s Church was laid by Bishop Pinkney, Assistant Bishop of Maryland. Partially finished, St. Luke’s Church was opened for divine service on Thanksgiving Day November 1879 with Reverend Dr. Alexander Crummell as its First Rector. A migration of people from St. Mary’s took place.
Rev. Dr. Crummell retired for reasons of health in 1896 after 23 years at St. Luke’s. Widely considered a scholar and a visionary, Alexander Crummell continued his work until his death on September 10, 1898.
The Reverend Dr. Owen M. Waller became the Second Rector in 1896. He served about nine years during which time the first Parish Hall was achieved as a memorial to Rev. Dr. Crummell. Rev. Dr. Waller resigned his rectorship in 1905 following his earning a M.D. degree from Howard University Medical School.
The Reverend Thomas J. Brown became the Third Rector of St. Luke’s in 1905 and much progress was made under his leadership. From a financial standpoint, the liquidation of a debt of $11,000 that had burdened the Parish for years is worthy of note; the movement to retire this debt was started by the Young Women’s Club. The Vestry voted no longer to accept the small stipend which had always been given by the Board of Missions, and so the congregation became self-supporting. On Thanksgiving Day 1919, St. Luke’s was consecrated to the service of God by Bishop Harding. The Reverend Mr. Brown stated: “The congregation is happy to know that as far as activities are concerned, St. Luke’s has long been diocesan [minded]. The Girls’ Friendly Society, the Women’s Auxiliary, the Daughters of the King, and the Society of the Nazarene, all are earnestly striving to do their part here for the advancement of the Kingdom.”
The Reverend Josiah Elliott became the Fourth Rector of St. Luke’s in 1935. The Reverend Mr. Elliott was responsible for the renovation of the Church. However, he died suddenly following a heart attack in the summer of 1945. A special service was held celebrating the reopening of the Church on Sunday, September 16, 1945; this service was dedicated to the memory of the late Rector, Josiah Epps Elliott.
The Reverend Dillard H. Brown was installed as Fifth Rector on June 1, 1945, succeeding Reverend Elliott. Under The Reverend Father Brown’s leadership, St. Luke’s became a very important force in the community:
- It became one of the leading downtown parishes;
- New programs for the youth were organized;
- Its annual budget grew to $100,000; and
- A land expansion program was started and a new Parish Hall was begun.
The cornerstone for the new Parish Hall was laid on May 28, 1961, with the Bishop of the Dioceses of Washington, The Right Reverend Angus Dun officiating. The building is now named for The Reverend Dillard H. Brown who subsequent to the building’s construction, accepted election by the Church’s General Convention as Missionary Bishop of Liberia. In 1969, Bishop Brown was assassinated in Liberia by an unemployed chemistry professor.
The Reverend William A. Van Croft, who was Curate at St. Luke’s under Father Brown, was elected as the Sixth Rector of the Church. He followed the leadership and example of the Rev. Fr. Brown, maintaining a high degree of liturgical excellence. He was responsible for liquidating a debt of $170,000 incurred in constructing the new Parish Hall. In 1976, St. Luke’s became a Historical Landmark. The Reverend Fr. Van Croft and the Reverend Dr. J. Carlton Hayden, a Chaplain at Howard University, submitted to the Diocese a resolution to have Dr. Crummell’s name included on the calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. This resolution was approved at the 84th Convention of the Diocese. The date of the observance is September 10. The Reverend Father Van Croft served God faithfully in this house (St. Luke’s) until his death in February 1984.
The Reverend J. Shelton Pollen, Jr., for 19 years Associate Rector under the Reverend Fr. Van Croft, was elected the Seventh Rector of St. Luke’s in 1984. During his tenure, the Reverend Fr. Pollen had, as his goal, to prepare the congregation to move into the twenty-first century. He enabled and guided lay ministry to expand so that the parish could reflect God’s universal love through in-reach and out-reach programs. Such programs included Vestry retreats, the Lay Leadership Assembly, the Pictorial Directory, and the establishment of the Lectors, Birthday Groups, and Scholarship Programs. The Reverend Fr. Pollen retired in September 1994, at the mandatory age of retirement.
In March 1999, the Reverend Virginia A. Brown-Nolan was called to be the Eight Rector and served from March 1999 to September 2010. She is the daughter of Bishop Dillard Brown, the Fifth Rector of the Parish. She brought newer style of worship and initiated new ministries since her institution which was held from October 1999 – December 2009.