Ahead of Catholic Schools Week, St. Augustine Catholic School—Washington D.C.’s oldest surviving Black school—unveiled a commemorative street sign at the corner of 14th and V Streets. It was the culmination of a year-long effort to honor the historic institution, also recognized as the second-oldest parochial school in the Archdiocese of Washington.
The ceremony on Friday afternoon included Ward 1 Councilwoman Brianne Nadeau, who sponsored the 2023 legislation authorizing the supplementary signage near the school. The adjoining parish, St. Augustine Catholic Church, is known as the “mother church of Black Catholics” in the district.
“The unveiling of St. Augustine School Way pays tribute to the rich history and spiritual legacy of St. Augustine Catholic Church and School,” said Fr Patrick Smith, the parish pastor.
“Founded five years before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Black Catholic community, while not yet having a church of their own to worship (the community worshipped in the basement of St. Matthew’s Church—later Cathedral), nonetheless opened the first Catholic school for Black children in the District, making it clear that the education of their children was their highest priority.”
Founded as St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in 1858, the institution has for a century and a half stood as a testament to Black Catholic resilience in the nation’s capital. The school was originally built by free and enslaved African Americans and was later renamed after St. Augustine of Hippo, the great African saint and doctor of the Church, along with the church in 1876.
The school relocated to 15th and S Street in the 20th century, later arriving at its current location in the 1970s after St. Augustine merged with St. Paul Catholic Church. According to the St. Augustine parish website, the school has closed several times over the years, with revivals following the Civil War and again in 1908 under the leadership of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
Now educating grades pre-K through 8 with assistance from the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, the school counts among its alumni various distinguished figures, including many members of the historic Quander and Queen families.
“The school is committed to laying a threefold foundation of academic excellence, spiritual growth, and moral virtue in all students who enroll, resulting in holistic character development,” reads a press release announcing Friday’s street renaming ceremony.
“Deeply committed to community outreach and engagement, St. Augustine Catholic Church and School actively strives to make a positive impact on the lives of those in need in our neighborhood and beyond.”
The new honor this month is at least the second major recognition of the community by the district’s civil government. This year marks three decades since Mayor Marion Barry declared June 17 as “St. Augustine’s Day” in 1984.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.