IN THE 1840s, Washington, D.C. was an area that Charles Dickens called “a city of magnificent intentions.” Others were less charitable, describing it as “an ill-contrived, ill-arranged, rambling, scrambling village.” Viewed through 21st-century eyes, it was a small town of about 50,000 inhabitants—36,000 whites, 10,000 free African-Americans, and 4,000 black slaves. Pierre L’Enfant’s grand plan for the capital city remained mostly on paper. Only two streets were paved, and parks and circles were unplanted and barren. Scattered government buildings in various stages of completion dotted the landscape. People lived in equally scattered villages. Everywhere, residents depended on springs and wells for water and on privies for sanitation. Pigs, geese, and cattle roamed the streets as scavengers.
It was under these conditions that on 7 May 1844 a small group of 20 Episcopalians and about 100 other worshippers living in the neighborhood then known as the Northern Liberties— likely named after a similar neighborhood in Philadelphia, and bounded approximately by 3rd, 15th, G, and O Streets, NW—met to organize a new church. For a little over a year, they had been gathering under the ministrations of the Reverend Levin I. Gilliss, whom the Right Reverend William R. Whittingham, Bishop of Maryland, had appointed as missionary to the Northern Liberties, where Episcopal services had never been held. Now, encouraged by Bp. Whittingham, the local Episcopal clergy, and other established congregations (particularly St. John’s Parish, located at Lafayette Square near the White House and known as the church of the Presidents), the time had come for the group to strike out on their own.
Although the formal organization date of Ascension Parish was 1 March 1845, its real origins took place on that May day in 1844, when the group adopted articles of association. On 8 May, the trustees elected the Rev. Gillis as Rector, along with Wardens and a Treasurer. Ascension Parish was carved out of the territory of St. John’s, with the new parish lying within the following boundaries adopted at the 1845 Convention of the Diocese of Maryland:
. . . beginning at the intersection of 12th street West and G street North, and running East with the middle of said G street until its intersection with 7th street West, thence north with the middle of said 7th street to the northern boundary of the city, thence West with said Northern boundary until its intersection with 12th street West, and thence South to the place of beginning.
While proceeding with the raising of funds for a church building, the new parish met in a schoolhouse on 9th Street, NW. Fortunately, a major benefactor had taken an interest. Mrs. Marcia Burnes Van Ness, an active, devoted member of St. John’s, was the sole heir to more than 600 acres of central Washington real estate, then worth $1.5 million. In 1802 she married John Peter Van Ness, then a Representative from New York and later mayor of Washington, a major general in the local militia, and a prominent banker. Upon the death of their only daughter, she devoted the remainder of her life to charitable work, notably founding, endowing, and supervising the operations of the Washington Orphan Asylum.
Mrs. Van Ness died before the new church could be built, but Mr. Van Ness, faithfully carrying out his wife’s wishes, deeded to Ascension Parish a lot on the same block as the orphanage, on H Street, NW, between 9th and 10th Streets. By 5 September 1844, sufficient funds were in hand for Bp. Whittingham to lay the cornerstone in the presence of the rector, the congregation, and ten visiting clergy.
While the congregation continued to worship in its schoolroom, construction work steadily progressed. The new building was judged ready to open in December 1845, although the basement was left unfinished and work remained to be done on the exterior. It was a rectangular Gothic-style brick structure 54 feet by 85 feet, containing two stories: a ground-level basement and the main church on the upper level. Parishioners entered through a basement vestibule, with broad steps leading up to the main church. The basement was planned for use as a Sunday school and lecture hall. At the first services on 14 December 1845, many distinguished persons were present, including Major General Winfield Scott, then general-in-chief of the U.S. Army.
Shortly thereafter, other events occurred which were to have a profound effect on Ascension Parish. The private banking and brokerage firm of Corcoran and Riggs, through various machinations, made a successful bid for the entire $16 million bond issue which Congress authorized in March 1848 to finance the just-concluded Mexican-American War. William W. Corcoran, one of the partners, traveled to London and sold $5 million worth of the issue on the British markets. The firm made an enormous profit, enabling it to participate in the development of the newly-acquired Western territories. By 1854, Corcoran, at the age of 56, was wealthy enough to retire from active business and devote himself to philanthropy.
Ascension had grown considerably in the late 1840s and early 1850s; however, the Rev. Gilliss’s health began to fail. It was only with the help of other clergy that services were continued from January to May 1852. In October of that year, it became necessary to call the Reverend Henry Stanley as Assistant Rector. On the bright side, solicitations among neighboring Southern states lessened the debt of the parish by $1,200. Through the contributions of several parishioners, the remaining debt of $2,100 was paid; and on 29 May 1853 the Right Reverend Henry John Whitehouse, Bishop of Illinois, consecrated the church.
In May 1854, the Rev. Gilliss’s ill health forced him to resign, whereupon the Rev. Stanley succeeded him as Rector. Under the Rev. Stanley, the parish became wracked with dissension, the nature of which has not been preserved. In 1855, the Rector’s salary was in arrears; and during the next two years, both the number of communicants and Sunday school attendees declined. In 1857, the Rev. Stanley resigned, leaving behind a disrupted and leaderless congregation.
Looking for a leader to heal the dissension, the Vestry turned to the Reverend Dr. William Pinkney, Rector of St. Matthias Church in Bladensburg, Maryland, with a unanimous call to serve as Rector of Ascension. Reluctant to leave his parish and accept Ascension’s call, Dr. Pinkney twice declined until Bp. Whittingham intervened and told him that it was his obligation to accept. Known for his devotion to duty, Dr. Pinkney could no longer demur and was installed as Rector on 11 October 1857. He began holding daily Morning and Evening Prayer and celebrating Holy Communion on all church festivals. His sermons, though described as “not particularly profound theologically,” appealed to all listeners.
Dr. Pinkney’s arrival had a salutary effect on the parish, and his influence soon began to reach beyond the Northern Liberties, which by the late 1850s had begun to develop into a fashionable residential area. The congregation grew so rapidly during this period that the building became inadequate. In 1859, at an expense of $4,137.43, extensive renovations and enlargements were made, including extending the rear of the church to form a new chancel and adding more pews, thus increasing the seating to somewhere between 600 and 800. A stained-glass window was placed over the altar, with lesser windows in the body of the church. The new chancel was handsomely furnished in walnut, the ceiling of the church arched, and new carpeting installed throughout. Although the parish was rapidly becoming known for its generosity, Dr. Pinkney continually declined further salary increases!
THIS happy state of affairs, however, did not long continue in the face of growing national tensions which were reflected in both the city and the diocese. Despite serving as the capital of the Union, Washington had been carved originally from the slaveholding state of Maryland and was a city dominated by white Southerners. Most city residents had relatives and friends in the South, and family members often held conflicting loyalties. While Bp. Whittingham was a staunch Unionist and supporter of President Lincoln and the federal government, Dr. Pinkney, though devoted to the Union, was a Southern sympathizer and believed war to prevent secession to be unconstitutional. Consequently, he and the people of Ascension were considered (probably accurately) disloyal and secessionist.
Once the Civil War began in 1861, it was perhaps inevitable that matters between bishop and rector, civil and parish authority, should come to a head. In early March 1862, Confederate forces in the area of Centerville, Virginia, retreated closer to the Southern capital in Richmond. As a result of this withdrawal, the civil authorities requested that Bp. Whittingham set forth a “special prayer of thanksgiving for the late victories” and for removal of the threat of siege to Washington. Dr. Pinkney, in a letter to the Bishop, refused to use the prayer (albeit politely), his ostensible position being that the Bishop had exceeded his canonical authority by prescribing an “unauthorized” prayer for use only by certain churches within the diocese.
The reaction of the civil authorities was swift; late Saturday evening following the Sunday on which the prayer was omitted, the Provost Marshal (head of the military police) notified Dr. Pinkney that the federal government would take over the church the next day “to prevent a disturbance.” When the congregation arrived on Sunday morning, they found soldiers in possession of the building and carpenters at work tearing up the interior.
Ascension was not the only parish so afflicted. In June 1862, as the first casualties began to come in from the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia, nine other churches were also pressed into service as hospitals, including the Episcopal churches of Epiphany and Old Trinity. As the wounded continued to pour in from the battlefields, schools, public buildings (including the Capitol), and other churches were similarly taken over; and by autumn Washington had been converted into a vast hospital.
Fortunately for Ascension, William Corcoran, now one of Washington’s most noted citizens, came to its assistance. Among Corcoran’s many properties was a building a few blocks away from the church on H Street, NW, between 13th and 14th Streets; and he offered it to the dispossessed parish, which gratefully accepted and continued to worship there until they were able to return to their own building. In this manner, Corcoran and Dr. Pinkney were brought together in a friendship which lasted until the latter’s death; and the parish eventually gained a faithful member and strong supporter.
In September 1862, Bishop Whittingham made a formal presentment against Dr. Pinkney to the Standing Committee of the diocese, which ignored the charges. As might be expected, an estrangement between the two men remained; and in the spring of 1863 Bp. Whittingham declined to visit Ascension for confirmation, pleading “bodily condition.” Time was required to heal the breach.
Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, spent most of the war in Paris, where his son-in-law was secretary of the Confederate mission. In 1866, about a year after his return to Washington, he gave to the parish its splendid marble font, even though he had never professed any religious belief up to this point. Dr. Pinkney took the opportunity of this gift to urge Corcoran to make use of it himself, or, in Dr. Pinkney's words, for his friend to make the “assumption of vows.” The next year, Corcoran’s much-beloved only daughter died, to his great grief. It will never be known to what extent his own growing convictions, Dr. Pinkney’s urging, or the death of his daughter influenced Corcoran’s decision, but on 29 March 1868, Dr. Pinkney baptised Corcoran in that font.
In 1870, the Diocese of Maryland at its convention unanimously elected Dr. Pinkney as Coadjutor (assistant) Bishop. Although Dr. Pinkney had no desire to leave Ascension, once again his strong sense of duty prevailed. Both he and Bp. Whittingham were able to overcome their wartime differences and to work collegially.
THE FACT that Bishop Pinkney’s consecration took place in Epiphany underscored the problems of the church’s current building, which was considered too small and its basement entrance “incommodious.” Ascension was no longer a small church serving primarily one of the less affluent sections of the city, but had become a large and influential downtown parish. By this point, the neighborhood was flourishing, with well-to-do professionals, businessmen, and politicians settling in the area in brick and brownstone structures reflecting the Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, and Château styles then in vogue. With these factors in mind, the parish started a building fund.
To fill the vacancy created by Bp. Pinkney’s departure, the vestry called as new rector the Reverend Orlando Hutton, one of Bp. Pinkney’s oldest and dearest friends. However, despite Bp. Pinkney’s characterization of the Rev. Hutton as a man of “sound learning, rare ability as a preacher, and true pastoral zeal,” Hutton almost at once began to run into difficulties. The building project stalled, and key members of the congregation became disaffected. He resigned after two years and resumed ministering to rural parishes in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Once again the vestry turned to Bp. Pinkney and requested that he resume the rectorship—not an uncommon arrangement for a bishop in those days of fewer administrative responsibilities. Bp. Pinkney, for his part, was loath to see the parish in which he had labored so long and lovingly on the verge of another collapse. He therefore agreed to accept, subject to the following conditions: that he should serve only in his spare time after he had fulfilled his duties to the diocese; that his “services…be rendered without pay,” and that he should have “a first-class assistant” who was “a gentleman of the highest character, on a sufficient salary.” The Vestry agreed to these conditions, and in January 1873 the Reverend Dr. John H. Elliott became Associate Rector. He would remain with the parish for thirty years.
After some interval of time and much deliberation, Ascension Parish determined to build an entirely new church building, of such structure, proportions, and architecture that would be a credit to both its congregation and to the capital city of the nation. Corcoran, now a member of the Vestry, donated the site in the northwest corner of Massachusetts Avenue (the longest thoroughfare in the city) and 12th Street, NW, one of the highest points in the downtown area, in a spot then known as “The Summit.” The Vestry retained the Baltimore architectural firm of Dixon and Carson, which in the 1870s produced some of the finest and best known buildings in Baltimore of that era, including the Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church (whose appearance is not dissimilar to Ascension). As Bp. Pinkney said, “We want a grand design, and on that we will go on until our means are exhausted and then wait for the ability to furnish it.” The cornerstone was laid on the beautiful afternoon of 9 June 1874, in the presence of a large throng of parishioners and friends, with Bp. Pinkney presiding and the Right Reverend Thomas Underwood Dudley, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky, giving the sermon.
The eventual cost of the new site and building, including principal and interest, came to $205,000, an enormous sum for the era. Of that amount Corcoran contributed $100,000, with the rest coming from the Vestry and parishioners. This contribution represented a tremendous sacrifice on the part of a congregation that was far from wealthy. As Bp. Pinkney later put it: “The precursor of it was the widow’s mite, twenty-five cents, handed in by a very aged lady, who said, ‘Here, sir, is all my earnings this day.’ ”
The Church of the Ascension held its first service in its new building on 5 December 1875, the second Sunday in Advent. The style of the building was termed “mixed Gothic” or “decorated Gothic.” It stood 74 feet high, with walls of white marble (from quarries near Cockeysville, Maryland) trimmed with pink Ohio sandstone. From its location on “The Summit,” its finely proportioned 90-foot tower was visible from many points in and from most of the approaches to the city. Its elegant interior structure of cast iron columns and timber trusses supported a high pitched roof. In the nave were 161 pews, each nine feet long, with crimson upholstery, providing seating for about 1,000. The chancel featured a stained-glass window of graceful proportions, 14 feet high and 20 feet wide. The building was lighted by gas jets placed mainly at the heads of columns.
About 420 communicants belonged to Ascension in 1876, that first year in the new building; this was an increase of over 100 compared with the previous year. Dr. Elliott was credited with doubling the number of communicants in four years, tripling attendance at Sunday school, and adding vastly to the prosperity of the church. In 1877, the church conducted two Sunday schools with 43 teachers and 380 scholars. For a time, Ascension retained the old church building on H Street, using it as a mission school. The style of worship was decidedly “Low Church,” so called because it emphasized the Reformed aspects of Anglicanism through evangelism and the ministry of the Word, and gave a “low” place to the importance of the sacraments. (A priest, for example, would never have been referred to as “Father.”) Bishop Pinkney strongly opposed “ritualism,” as the detractors of Anglo-Catholicism then called it, and inveighed against “bowings, prostrations, and genuflections” and the elevation of “the elements in the Holy Communion in such manner, as to expose them to the view of the People, as objects toward which adoration is made.”
Ascension continued to face difficulties repaying the large debt it had incurred in the construction of the new building. For nearly a decade, this indebtedness would tax the energies and resources of the parish, causing Bp. Pinkney great trouble and anxiety. Corcoran, although remaining on the Vestry, had apparently decided to make no further contributions to the church, possibly due to disputes over the Vestry’s handling of the contributions he had made and the various other funds they had raised. Ascension now faced the first of many threats of dissolution; deprived of Corcoran’s lavish gifts, the parish could not even meet the interest payments due on its debt, and a forced sale of the church building appeared imminent. On 4 November 1877, Dr. Elliott announced from the altar that six members of the Vestry had proposed to raise $10,000 if the congregation would raise $17,000. The scene that morning must have been dramatic as subscriptions came forth from the congregation. Inspired by this spirit of sacrifice, Corcoran announced that he would give $10,000 if the congregation could raise an equal amount. Before the service had ended, the congregation had raised $5,558. Eventually, despite further disputes between Corcoran and the Vestry regarding the amount and nature of his contributions, the debt crisis was solved and the church was able to pay $20,000 on its mortgage in the spring of 1878. The entire debt, however, would not be paid off until 1885.
Bp. Pinkney would not live to see that day. During the debt crisis, he had said that age was creeping up on him; but the last several years of his life brought him no noticeable lessening of activity. In 1879, Pinkney became Bishop of Maryland, succeeding Bp. Whittingham, who had died after several years of poor health. On 3 July 1883, Bishop Pinkney preached his last sermon at Sherwood Episcopal Church in Cockeysville, Maryland; the following morning, he died suddenly of “heart congestion” at the rectory there. The next morning, 5 July, a train brought his remains from Baltimore to Washington, where Dr. Elliott, Corcoran, and other Vestry members met the casket. A procession of carriages took the remains to the church, which was draped in black and purple, with heavy folds of black hanging over the main entrance. Long before the scheduled beginning of the funeral service at 6 p.m. on 6 July, the building was filled, with crowds extending far outside the church. The interment took place in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, which Corcoran had founded. The Pinkney family gratefully accepted Corcoran’s request to have the privilege of paying the burial expenses.
On 24 February 1888, two months past his 89th birthday, Corcoran died. He would also be buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. During his lifetime, he had disposed of approximately four million dollars in philanthropic gifts. The Vestry met four days after his death and noted in the minutes of the meeting his passing and his contributions of nearly $100,000 for the construction of the church building. The minutes also stated, though, that “it would be unjust to the hundreds who have given and at great sacrifice for the erection of the church to speak of it as his memorial.”
AFTER Bp. Pinkney’s death, Dr. Elliott succeeded him as Rector. Unfortunately, he had little time to enjoy the success of paying off the mortgage in 1885, for the following winter a divisive dispute over financial matters erupted between him and several Vestry members, who called for his resignation. Dr. Elliott managed to survive these difficulties and would continue as rector until 1903. During his tenure, he was aided by a number of able assistants, including the greatly beloved Reverend Thomas Worthington Cooke, who left after three years to become rector of Christ Church in Clarksburg, West Virginia, but who would play a key role in the future of the parish.
Both city and parish enjoyed considerable growth during this period. In 1886, writing in the third person, Dr. Elliott described the parish as follows:
The heavy debt on the Church building had all been provided for at the Easter before; the fullness of the attendance on Sunday mornings had excited general remark; the pews were being taken with unprecedented rapidity; the congregation were buoyant, responding promptly to calls for work and money; old organizations were active and new ones…had come into being…and were testifying to the life of the Parish and the activity of the Rector.
Prominent among these organizations was the Chinese Sunday School, begun in the spring of 1887 by Charles Gauss, then a student at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, to teach young Chinese immigrants living in the original Chinatown along Pennsylvania Avenue (now the site of the Federal Triangle). It is not known how long the school remained in existence, but it survived at least through 1910, when it had 48 students and 31 teachers.
IN 1895, after many years of debate and discussion, the Diocese of Washington was created out of the Diocese of Maryland, with its territory comprising the District of Columbia and the Maryland counties of Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s. This new diocese stood as evidence of the prominence that Washington had attained by the late 19th century, and of the degree of permanence and respectability deemed necessary for the capital of an emerging world power. After an unusual eleven ballots cast, the diocese on 6 December 1895 elected as the first Bishop of Washington Henry Yates Satterlee, then rector of Calvary Parish in New York City.
Two years earlier, Congress had granted the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia a charter to establish a cathedral for the capital. Bishop Satterlee would spend the rest of his life making the present Washington National Cathedral a reality. In the interim, two parishes would serve the diocese as pro-cathedral (a parish church that temporarily serves as a diocesan cathedral)—from 1896, St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill; and from October 1902, Ascension, the latter due to the strong personal interest of the Vestry and people of the parish, as well as of Bp. Satterlee, who also “found that the present financial conditions of the Ascension Parish are a cause for grave concern.” According to the concordat between Bp. Satterlee and Ascension, the parish would remain solely responsible for its financial affairs, while the Bishop would have direction and control of appointment of clergy, direction of rites and ceremonies, music, and parochial organizations and societies. In addition, Bishop Satterlee would have use of the church at any time for the purpose of preaching and holding services.
At this time, with Dr. Elliott’s health rapidly failing, Bp. Satterlee appointed as Priest-in-charge the Reverend Clement C. Brown, Rector of St. John’s Church in Auburn, New York. The following year, upon Dr. Elliott’s resignation, the Bishop nominated and the Vestry elected the Rev. Brown as Rector.
During this period, although money was not plentiful, physical changes and improvements were made to the church and its surroundings. Immediately upon becoming pro-cathedral, a sidewalk was laid on Massachusetts Avenue and the boards under the pews were cut to make kneeling more comfortable for the congregation. Certainly there were more worshippers in the church; as pro-cathedral, Ascension also ministered to communicants throughout the diocese, with the addition of a Sunday morning pro-cathedral celebration and an evening mission service. Also, Bp. Satterlee conducted weekly quiet hours during Lent and quiet days through the year. Bp. Satterlee’s missionary interest for the extension of the Episcopal Church in the rural districts and poorer sections of the city continued with the support of Vestry and congregation under the Canon Missionary, the Reverend Philip Mercer Rhinelander (later seventh Bishop of Pennsylvania and first Warden of the College of Preachers). The congregation accepted an assessment of over $500 for foreign and domestic missions in 1904, and, in addition, supported their own mission to the African-American population of the District.
In April 1907, after discord with Bp. Satterlee, the Rev. Brown resigned as Rector. In December of that year, Bp. Satterlee nominated as Rector the Reverend J. Henning Nelms, Rector of St. Matthew’s Church in Philadelphia. The Vestry unanimously confirmed the nomination and extended the call, which the Rev. Nelms accepted. He began his official connection with Ascension on the Feast of the Epiphany, 6 January 1908, although he would not be formally installed as Rector until June.
It was later said that “if Bishop Satterlee could have ordered the circumstances of his going from earth he could have desired but little different from what actually happened.” On 10 February 1908, suffering from a severe cold, he went to New York City to attend a meeting of the Board of Missions. From there he went to Providence, Rhode Island, to meet the Diocesan Committee on the National Cathedral. He returned to Washington on the 14th after being detained on a train without food for seven hours, in the bleak discomfort of a winter fog on the North River, while passing through New York. Disregarding his health, he officiated in his own Chapel on Sunday the 16th and administered Confirmation at St. Philip’s Chapel, Anacostia, later that morning. During the week, pneumonia developed and his condition became grave. On Saturday, 22 February, knowing that the end was near, Bp. Satterlee asked to receive Holy Communion at the hands of the diocesan missioner, the Reverend W.J.D. Thomas. At dawn just moments before his death, he spoke words of spiritual encouragement and pronounced the benediction as he clasped the hand of each family member and friend for the last time. With his last breaths, he praised God in the words of the Sanctus: “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify thy glorious name; ever more praising thee and saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Amen.”
On Tuesday the 25th, while the body of Bishop Satterlee lay in state in the sanctuary, Holy Communion was celebrated every hour from 7:00 am until noon (unheard of at Ascension) for the hundreds who had come to pay their respects to their beloved Bishop. By 2:00 pm the church was filled for the burial service (with President Theodore Roosevelt and members of his Cabinet in attendance), and an overflow service was arranged at the nearby Church of the Incarnation at 12th and N Streets, NW. The body reposed in the so-called “Little Sanctuary,” where it would remain until it could be re-interred in the Bethlehem Chapel of Washington National Cathedral, the building for which Bp. Satterlee had labored so long and mightily.
ON 6 MAY 1908, on petition from the Rector and the Wardens and Vestry of the parish, the Standing Committee of the diocese, acting as the ecclesiastical authority, terminated the pro-cathedral relationship. The church, however, continued to be a center for many functions, including diocesan conventions, young peoples’ fellowship meetings, and a gathering place for many community activities. Other activities included a victory service at the end of the First World War in 1918, celebrated by the Right Reverend Daniel Tuttle, bishop of Missouri.
The neighborhood itself had begun to change. With the building of the Taft Bridge over Rock Creek in 1907 and the advent of the electric trolley, physical barriers to transportation and urban growth were no longer the obstacles they once had been. As such, formerly rural areas in the northwest of the District and across the Potomac in Virginia now became desirable areas for year-round residences. These new suburban communities were generally located at higher elevations and therefore became cooler and healthier respites from Washington’s hot and humid summers. Increasingly the area around the church became “moderate income,” with many of the communicants living in the immediate neighborhood. Others lived within easy walking distance of the church or only a few blocks from the trolley line at 14th Street and Thomas Circle, NW. A few families came by horse and carriage.
Ascension remained a healthy, vibrant parish, boasting more than 500 communicants, over 75 choristers on most Sundays (and up to 100 on festival occasions), and a Church School of over 150 students with twenty teachers. By 1910, the number of communicants increased to about 800 and the Church School enrollment doubled. The Rev. Nelms was popular with the young people of the church, and often gave them free passes to the movie theaters on 9th Street, NW.
As Ascension grew and flourished under the Rev. Nelms’s leadership, further improvements were made to the church property. In the spring of 1908, the Vestry voted to install a hot water heating system; and by November of that year, electric lights were a reality in some sections of the church. In 1910, the current altar and reredos were dedicated in honor of Bp. Satterlee. In 1919, a new chapel (now known as the St. Francis Chapel) was built, with services of dedication held there on 1 February of that year.
In 1920, the Rev. Nelms, in poor health, resigned as Rector. (He later became rector of what is now Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring is named in his honor, since the Rev. Nelms had been the driving force in establishing it as a mission.) The Right Reverend Alfred Harding, Bishop of Washington, named the Reverend Wellington Curran as temporary Priest-in-charge of the parish.
After the First World War, Ascension began to lose many of its member families to more affluent residential areas in the suburbs. Since the nation was enjoying great though uneven prosperity, many middle-class families could now afford automobiles and more spacious homes. Around the church, the neighborhood residents changed from families to mostly single persons living in rooming houses. As a result, church attendance dropped dramatically.
These were indeed dark days for Ascension. In March 1921, the Vestry decided to mortgage the church for $50,000 to defray expenses of the debt on the St. Francis Chapel. In June of that year, the first discussions were held regarding the union of Ascension with Incarnation Church (which would eventually unite with St. Stephen’s in 1925). In November 1922, these negotiations were renewed, only to be cancelled a week later when a full-time promising new rector was chosen.
After much prayer and deliberation, Bishop Harding decided that the one person who could give hope of restoring Ascension to its full former prestige was the Reverend Thomas Worthington Cooke, archdeacon of the diocese of Southern Ohio. The Rev. Cooke, who had been ordained and had assisted at Ascension, was much beloved there and was familiar with the parish’s difficulties. He accepted the unanimous call of the Vestry to serve as Rector in what was considered “one of his many self-sacrificing acts.” The task before him was extremely challenging, but the few faithful remaining members soon learned that they could trust and place their confidence in him. As one parish historian wrote, “With the grace of God ever upon them and with Mr. Cooke at the head, always sure of the future even in the very face of black despair, the work of restoring and saving the church was begun.”
This work would not come easily. In 1924, to pay off the mortgage, special fundraisers were conducted, and the church sold two vacant downtown lots. That autumn, the Rev. Cooke began paying rent and maintenance for the new rectory at 1308 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. By 1928, the financial condition of the parish had improved to the point that improvements in the heating system were made, the organ was overhauled and electrified, and the church received some much-needed painting and repairs. The work was completed by the time the diocesan convention was held at Ascension Church that year.
The Rev. Cooke’s dynamic leadership rejuvenated the parish. He was very highly regarded both by his congregation and all who knew him. He presented several men of the parish to the Right Reverend James E. Freeman, Bishop of Washington, for ordination. Two of them, the Reverend Robert J. Shores and the Reverend Hugh V. Clary, became the Rev. Cooke’s assistants. As Bp. Harding had hoped, Ascension did regain something of its former prestige, and once again served the community as it had in previous years.
After eight years of able and exhaustive service, the Rev. Cooke died on 9 November 1930. Bishop Freeman said at this time: “The Rev. Mr. Cooke attacked problems with vigor, courage, and splendid efficiency. He was a noble example of the high-minded Christian pastor, faithful in all things.”
The Rev. Cooke’s death, along with the ravages of the Great Depression, brought about a decline in the fortunes of the parish. On 8 December 1930, the vestry chose the Reverend Francis Alan Parsons as Rector to succeed the Rev. Cooke. He was installed on 1 February 1931 and continued as Rector until his resignation on 15 August 1939. (A noteworthy event during this period was the election in 1931 of Robert B. Riley, Jr. to the Vestry, where he would remain a member until his death in 1994.) On 24 September of that year, the Reverend Raymond L. Wolven became Priest-in-charge; he was elected Rector on 15 October 1941 and served until his resignation on 31 July 1944. On 14 August 1944, the Reverend Corwin C. Roach became Priest-in-charge. His tenure briefly arrested the downward slide of the parish, with the congregation doubling in members in the months following his arrival.
By 1947, however, matters had again reached a critical stage; the congregation had dwindled to a number too small to maintain the church building. The diocese made plans to sell the building, with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Seventh-Day Adventists interested in buying it. It was at this juncture that the vestry received a proposal of merger from the nearby Parish of Saint Agnes.
To be continued. Watch for Part II: St. Agnes Parish
Argillius Telluricus Eugenius me fecit