On this bike ride I rode to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square. An historic church located in the heart of our nation’s capital at 16th and H Streets (MAP), St. John’s is across the street from Lafayette Square Park and near the White House in downtown D.C. It is informally known as the “Church of the Presidents,” a nickname it earned because every sitting President, beginning in 1816 with James Madison, has been a regular or at least an occasional attendee.
Officially organized as a parish in 1815, the church was named for Saint John, the Evangelist. The church’s building was designed by the “Father of American Architecture,” Benjamin Latrobe, one of the architects of the U.S. Capitol Building and the architect of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also called the Baltimore Basilica, which was the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in the United States, and among the first major religious buildings constructed in the nation after the adoption of the Constitution. Construction of St John’s was completed and the first service held in October of 1816. In 1820, the portico and tower were added, and in 1966, St. John’s Church was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Church of the Presidents also has a “President’s pew.” President Madison first established the tradition of a President’s pew, selecting pew 28 for his private use in 1816. During subsequent renovations over the years, the pews were renumbered, including the President’s pew. President John Tyler paid for its use in perpetuity by Presidents of the United States. Today, the President’s pew is pew 54, and remains reserved for the President’s use when in attendance.
Another historic aspect of St. John’s Church is the bell in the steeple. Cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in August of 1822, it weighs nearly 1,000 pounds. It was installed at St. John’s in November of that same year, and has been in continuous service ever since. In addition to signaling a call to services, the bell has also served as an alarm bell for the neighborhoods and public buildings in the vicinity of the church.
From its historic origins in our country’s early days, to the founding of an orphanage in 1868 to serve children of the Civil War, to its modern-day ministry in D.C. and throughout the world – St. John’s continues its traditions of the past while having a present-day effect on our nation and our world.