Whenever I’ve been anywhere near the Southwest Waterfront during one of my middle of the day bike rides, I have been able to hear church bells ringing out at noon. So on this ride I decided to track down the source. As a result, I ended up at Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church, which is a Roman Catholic and Dominican parish, located in D.C.’s Southwest Waterfront neighborhood at 630 E Street (MAP), which is adjacent to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station, and just two blocks south of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.
The parish of Saint Dominic was first established in 1852 under the care of the Order of Preachers, popularly known as the “Dominicans.” Two years later, in March of 1854, the original parish church was dedicated during the feast of St. Joseph, the patron of the province of Dominicans serving St. Dominic’s parish. A decade later, just months after the conclusion of the Civil War, the cornerstone was laid for a new church building, designed by the now famous architect, Patrick Charles Keely, who designed nearly 600 churches and hundreds of other institutional buildings for the Roman Catholic Church or Roman Catholic patrons in the eastern United States and Canada. The new and larger English Gothic church was dedicated in 1875, and it is that church that remains today.
The outside of the church building looks much like it did when it was originally built. But the inside of the church is very different, And the neighborhood and surrounding area where it is located is also unlike it was.
On March 12, 1885, a fire destroyed the entire interior of the Saint Dominic’s. But the church’s interior was restored thanks to fund raising efforts of Catholic and Protestants alike. As part of the parish’s new interior, a Hilborne Roosevelt Organ was installed. Today it is one of the few surviving organs made by the cousins of President Theodore Roosevelt, and the sound quality remains largely unchanged since its installation. Although no photographs of the original interior are known to exist, it is said that the new interior is even more beautiful than the original.
The area surrounding the parish has changed even more than its interior. In 1954 much of Southwest D.C. was demolished and rebuilt in accordance with the District of Columbia Redevelopment Act of 1950. The convent, school, and original priory which were originally part of the parish were demolished to make room for the Southwest Freeway and frontage road. The main church building itself, however, was protected and saved as a result of an official act of Congress. During the intervening years since the church was built, everything else in the neighborhood has changed too, either being developed or torn down and replaced with large buildings housing either government offices, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Headquarters, or private businesses such as the Hyatt Place DC/National Mall Hotel.
Hopefully the parish bell tower’s large bronze bell, which was installed in March of 1889 and has been ringing each day for the past 127 years, will continue to draw people like me to experience this unique and beautiful church, which remains consistent in the midst of change.