More than 50 members and supporters of St. Thomas’ Parish Episcopal Church near Dupont Circle turned out on Sunday, Feb. 19, for a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start of construction of its new church building at 18th and Church St., N.W.
Gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson and St. Thomas’ pastor, Rev. Alex Dyer, jointly presided over the ceremony. They told the gathering the new church building would play a key role in helping to continue the church’s longstanding mission of providing spiritual and community support for the diverse population in the Dupont Circle area and the city at large.
Robinson and Dyer noted that St. Thomas’ original historic church building, first opened in 1899, was destroyed by a fire in 1970 that authorities listed as arson. The congregation converted an adjacent building used as a church hall and administrative offices into a new sanctuary, where the congregation has worshiped for more than 46 years.
Part of the ruins of the original church were left in place in an outdoor space used since that time as a park open to the surrounding community. After years of planning, the church’s Vestry, or governing board, decided to arrange for the construction of a new church building on the site of the original church.
“Reclaiming our historic site will make it possible for us to reach out more effectively into the community to be a visible, active, life-giving, and healing presence for our neighborhood and city,” church officials said in a statement.
Robinson made history in 2003 when he was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, becoming the Episcopal Church’s first out gay bishop. He said he moved to D.C. four years ago after retiring from his New Hampshire post. He currently serves as Bishop in Residence at St. Thomas’ Parish.
During the groundbreaking ceremony on Sunday, Robinson and Dyer talked about St. Thomas’ history and tradition of being a welcoming church for diverse and often marginalized groups, including immigrants, LGBT people and political dissidents.
“One of the things that I know as we build this new building is that we are standing on the shoulders of so many who came before us at St. Thomas,” Robinson told the Washington Blade. “And perhaps one of the most moving chapters in our history was in the ‘80s, when the AIDS crisis happened to our community,” he said. “And virtually everyone was turning their backs on us. St. Thomas reached out and gathered into themselves so many in our community who were suffering. They did funerals, did pastoral counseling and comforted us at a time when we had few friends and allies.”
Added Robinson: “So I think as we move into the future we will be looking for similar ways to reach out to other marginalized people, disenfranchised people.”
Gay activist and St. Thomas’ member David Perez, who serves as chair of Mayor Muriel Bower’s LGBT Advisory Committee, said the church was supportive of him at the time he came out as gay in 2006.
“The next week I came to this church and it was very welcoming and friendly,” he said. “I could finally be gay and worship and this congregation was very supportive.”
After determining they were unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for a new church building, St. Thomas’ officials entered into an arrangement with a developer that included selling about two-thirds of the church property to the developer, CAS Riegler, which it will use to build a seven-story, 56-unit condominium apartment building, according to a statement on the St. Thomas’ website. CAS Riegler, in return, is building the church on the remaining one-third of the property as part of a single, multi-use structure.
Four people opposed to the joint church-condo project and the elimination of the park formed a picket line with signs protesting the project on the sidewalk next to where the groundbreaking ceremony was taking place.
“I think the loss of the open space is a real loss for people,” said St. Thomas’ governing body official Carol Coonrod. “That’s belonged to the neighborhood for the past 40 years so if it’s going to be taken away from them I can understand their sadness and the dismay,” she said.
“And we hope the neighbors will come to see us as a good neighbor in their midst,” she said. “We’re very interested in reconciliation so that we’re all together in this neighborhood as people who share a common commitment to our city.”
During a reception following the groundbreaking ceremony officials with CAS Riegler gave a video presentation showing exterior and interior views of the new church building that can be seen here.