The buildings won’t change much from the outside. But a transformation is set to take place at the northeast corner of Duke Street and South Pitt Street — one that will refine the mission of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church from the inside out.
“People get excited about bricks and mortar,” said the Rev. Thomas Clay, parish associate. “But it’s the mission of a church that’s really what’s important.”
Over the years, St. Paul’s has been the point of origin for many important Alexandria institutions: the Episcopal seminary, the Alexandria Red Cross and the Alexandria Hospital — just to name a few. But its leaders say that the church’s aging buildings have become an impediment to efficient ministry. That’s why they have initiated a $6.2 million renovation project scheduled to be completed over the next 14 months.
“Serving the needs of the community is part of the genetic code of this church,” said the Rev. Oran Warder, rector of the church. “And this renovation project will help us take up that charge.”
The “Shine as a Light” renovation will reshape the interiors of two buildings at the intersection of South Pitt Street and Duke Street: a 1950s era administration and schoolhouse facing Pitt known as Wilmer Hall and a Victorian townhouse facing Duke known as the Damascus House. The refurbished classrooms will be used by the church’s nursery and day school while the renovated Damascus House will serve as a space for serving the community.
“Through this enhanced space, we’ll be able to better serve the community,” said Catherine Murphy, director of stewardship. “As a growing parish, we have a responsibility to better serve the community.”
<b>FOUNDED IN 1809</b>, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church began as a rebellious faction of Christ Church. According to Alexandria historian Ruth Lincoln Kaye’s 1984 history of the church, the schism emerged when the Rev. William Gibson had a dispute with congregants over clerical garb and sermon delivery. Church records show that many members of the church disapproved of Gibson’s use of a white surplice, preferring the austere black cassock preferred by the church’s previous leader. But fashion was not the only reason for the split.
“When, in addition, word reached Mr. Gibson through the grapevine that his sermons were considered too abrasive and were delivered with too much frankness, his reportedly excitable nature caused him to mount the high pulpit and resign without prior advice to the vestry, an act which flouted church procedure and further aggravated the situation,” Kaye wrote. “About half the congregation of Christ Church followed Mr. Gibson to found the new church.”
The newly formed Episcopal congregation initially occupied a meetinghouse in the 200 block of Fairfax Street. Eventually, the parish moved to land on South Pitt Street donated by vestryman Daniel McLean. In 1817, church leaders hired architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design the construction of a sanctuary. Latrobe —known for his work as the architect of the Statuary Hall and the White House porticos — was a friend of Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington and early member of St. Paul’s.
As the church grew and expanded over the years, it built Norton Hall to the north and Wilmer Hall to the south. It also acquired two townhouses adjacent to Wilmer Hall, one that acts as the rectory at 411 Duke St. and one that became the Damascus House at 413 Duke St.
“This church has grown a great deal over the years,” said Cathy Tyler, the great-great-great granddaughter of Daniel McLean. “So it’s nice to see that our renovation is going to let that tradition continue for the next 200 years.”
<b>IN A BRIEF CEREMONY</b> before its 11 a.m. service on Sunday, church leaders celebrated the official beginning of the 14-month renovation process. The rector pointed out several families that helped found the church in 1808 that are still part of the congregation today. He held the newest member of the parish in his arms as he recognized the oldest living member.
“This is a wonderful new beginning,” said State Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-30), a longtime member of the church. “It’s an extension of our past that will help us project our tradition of community service into the future.”
For the members of St. Paul’s the project represents the traditions of the past as well as a commitment to the future. Church leaders say that the new meeting space at Damascus House could be used for a variety of purposes — everything from helping the working poor to providing early childhood education to those who can’t afford it.
“It’s not about buildings,” said Alicia Ragadale, senior warden. “It’s about being part of the community.”
Because of the nature of work that will take place at the new Damascus House, Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) has been able to insert a $150,000 earmark into HR5576, also known as the Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Renewal Appropriations Bill. The Senate hasn’t taken up the bill yet, but Moran’s office hopes to make sure that the earmark survives through the conference process.
“We’re going to keep pushing to make sure it’s in the final version,” said Austin Durrer, Moran’s press secretary. “We’re expecting a final version in December.”