Out of the Attic


Before St. Joseph Catholic Church opened in 1916, African American Catholics in Alexandria attended St. Marys Church but worshipped within the limits of segregation. 

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they sat in the north wing, had their own religious education classes and were married by a priest in their homes. At the same time, Thomas Blair, a black man, served as sexton for nearly 30 years. In the early 1900s, African Americans at St. Marys met regularly at the churchs lyceum with Charles Hannigan, a priest from Richmond in the Josephite Order, an order whose mission was evangelization in the African American community. 

In 1913, Blair convened a committee to form a new church and appealed to the bishop in Richmond. Property at the northwest corner of Wythe and North Columbus streets was acquired in 1914, and Reverend Joseph Kelly was appointed to be the first priest at the new St. Josephs parish. That same year, Mother Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and a member of a wealthy family in Philadelphia, donated $8,000 toward St. Josephs. 

The church building, designed by Washington architects Murphy and Olmsted, was expected to cost around $12,000 and, on October 8, 1915, church officials and parishioners attended the groundbreaking ceremony seen in this photograph. 

On November 21, 1915, the bishop set the cornerstone and on May 14, 1916, St. Joseph Church was officially dedicated. Two weeks later, longtime sexton Thomas Blair, considered by many to be the father of St. Joseph Church, died at age 65.