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Observing Ascension Day at The Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes

Today is Ascension Day, a Christian celebration day commemorating Jesus’s ascension into heaven.  According to the Bible, Christ met several times with his disciples during the 40 days after his resurrection to instruct them on how to carry out his teachings. It is believed that on the 40th day he took them to the Mount of Olives, where they watched as he ascended to heaven.  Therefore, Ascension Day occurs ten days before Pentecost and is observed on the 40th day of Easter, which always falls on a Thursday.  However, some churches, particularly in the United States, celebrate it on the following Sunday.

In observance of Ascension Day, on this lunchtime bike ride I stopped by the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes, located at 1215 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in the Downtown neighborhood of northwest D.C.

The origin of the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes dates back to May 7, 1844, when several people who had previously attended services at nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square met to discuss establishing their own parish.  After approval from the diocese, the territory of St. John’s was split between the two churches, formally establishing the Church of the Ascension on March 1, 1845.

After the donation of land on H Street, between 9th and 10th streets, by Parishioner Martha Burnes Van Ness, a prominent local socialite and the wife of banker and future D.C. Mayor John Peter Van Ness, the cornerstone was laid for the church’s new home on September 5, 1844.  Construction of a the Gothic Revival brick building was complete enough to use by December 1844, and the first services were held on December 14th.

During the Civil War there were disagreements within the church. with some parishioners as well as clergy sympathizing with the Confederacy while others were Unionists.  After one such disagreement in which the parish’s bishop asked the church to pray and thank God for recent Union victories and the church’s rector refused, Washington’s Provost Marshall notified the church that the authorities would assume control of the church to prevent a disturbance.  The Church of the Ascension then became a military hospital to house casualties from the war, as did Church of the Epiphany, and Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown.

During the subsequent war years after their church was seized by the government, the parish was without a home. The problem was solved by member William Corcoran, a prominent banker and partner in the firm of Corcoran and Riggs, later known as Riggs Bank. Corcoran offered the use of a building he owned on H Street, between 13th and 14th Streets.  The congregation met there, and would not return to its permanent home until after the conclusion of the war more than three years later.

Within a short period of time after the congregations return to the church, the structure proved too small and not grand enough for what was now one of the most affluent areas of the city.  So after much debate, church leaders decided to erect a new structure. William Corcoran donated the site at the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 12th Street where the church continues to be located, as well as approximately half of the $205,000 construction costs.

The cornerstone for what is still the church’s current building was subsequently laid on June 9, 1874.  The building is constructed of white marble quarried near Cockeysville, Maryland, with accents of pink Ohio sandstone.  Designed in the Victorian Gothic style, it reaches a height of 74 feet with a 190-foot tower and spire that was visible across much of the city at the time it was built.

After World War I, membership at the Church of the Ascension began to decline, and in 1925 the congregation merged with nearby St. Stephen’s Church to help stabilize the parish.  This worked briefly until the onset of the Great Depression, when a downturn began that lasted through 1947, when the diocese considered selling the building to another congregation.  It was then that the Vestry received a proposal from St. Agnes Episcopal Church to merge.  It accepted and adopted its present name, under which its diverse, urban congregation continues as an active parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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