- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2014

Call it the immaculate restoration.

On Sunday, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Northwest celebrated its 150th anniversary, mere days after completion of an extensive renovation that brightened the sanctuary, patched the roof and installed glass doors at the entrance.

“Curb appeal is one of the first attractions to any building. We’re literally making it immaculate,” said Monsignor James D. Watkins, the church’s pastor since 2001. “If that’s the case, people may venture inside and see something more beautiful. I hope people find an anchor of hope, a refuge of prayer, a place of worship, a beautiful gem.”

Since the waning months of the Civil War, the Immaculate Conception Church has served the urban center, providing extra pews for a burgeoning Catholic community, standing sentry during race riots, and today welcoming the faithful from all walks of life.

The church’s red-brick facade is in the American Gothic Revival style, a stark difference from neighboring buildings. While the glass-and-steel Washington Convention Center sprawls just south of the church, colorful row houses are nestled just across the street. North of the church, hotels, luxury apartments and popular new restaurants continue to sprout as the city reinvents itself.

“The church has been an island of calm, an island of progress in the neighborhood,” said Alexander Padro, chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the area where the church is located. “Churches are important to generations of people. Churches transcend centuries, especially this one.”


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Immaculate Conception Church has anchored the corner of Eighth and N streets since 1864, 75 years before the establishment of the Archdiocese of Washington. It started as a mission church for St. Patrick’s, the first Catholic church in the District, after the migration of residents into the northern part of the city overstuffed the pews.

Immaculate Conception was the first of four of mission churches, along with St. Matthew’s, St. Aloysius and St. Mary’s.

The cornerstone of Immaculate Conception was laid Oct. 30, 1864, for a structure that was 50 feet by 75 feet, and the church opened the following summer. Over the next three decades, its footprint grew to include a school, convent and rectory, while it also rose into the skyline with a bell tower. However, its “pay-as-you-go” financing plan meant the tower wasn’t completed until 1900.

Throughout the 20th century the church served many purposes. It was the “social hub” of the community in the 1920s and 1930s, Monsignor Watkins said, and the site of the “Washington Catholic Radio Hour” from 1930 to the 1950s.

In 1968, “all hell broke loose” with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the race riots that followed, Monsignor Watkins said.

Monsignor J. Joshua Mundell is credited with helping to save both the church and the surrounding community during the ‘60s. He advocated for better housing, financing the Immaculate Conception Apartments; and the parish school reopened under this leadership in 1964. His advocacy earned him the nickname the “Shepherd of Shaw.”

Monsignor Watkins said the former pastor’s work stood out even to the rioters, who painted “Soul Power” on the church property, indicating the church and its buildings should be left untouched.

“For that reason those properties still stand,” Monsignor Watkins said. “Everything else was gutted.”

Today the church, school, rectory and convent are all on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Padro credits Monsignor Watkins with embracing the legacy of Monsignor Mundell.

“You’ll very often see Monsignor Watkins with a pail and broom cleaning up,” Mr. Padro said.

Monsignor Watkins said when he arrived, he saw a lot of work to be done, from warped and flooded flooring to cracked ceilings, musty pictures and cloudy stained glass.

On a recent afternoon, as students scampered down the sidewalk after leaving school for the day, Monsignor Watkins swept the bricks in their wake.

Looking ahead, Monsignor Watkins said the church’s goal is to “continue to adjust to the needs” of the parish, which has about 250 families, and follow the directive of Pope Francis for a “new evangelization.”

“Our hope, our efforts are to move toward reaching out to so many people,” through education, hospitality, and especially to lapsed Catholics, to show “the church is more welcoming,” he said.

“All are welcome. That’s the beauty of this church. What I think is one of the great hallmarks is its diversity,” he said with a smile. “Black, white, gay, straight, poor, middle class — we even have some Democrats.”

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