From our organization as a parish in 1815 until today, St. John’s Church has been a powerful symbol of faith in the heart of our nation’s capital. St. John’s was designed by noted architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to serve Episcopalians in a growing residential community in the neighborhoods in the western end of Washington.
The cornerstone of St. John’s was set on September 14, 1815. St. John’s first service was held on October 27, 1816, and the church was consecrated on December 27, 1816. Beginning with James Madison, until the present, every person who has held the office of President of the United States has attended a service at St. John’s. Several early Presidents were communicants, as were more recent ones. Thus, St. John’s is known as “the Church of the Presidents” and is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Pew 54 is the President’s Pew, and is reserved for the President’s use when in attendance at the church.
Yet the real power and prestige of St. John’s emanate from the generations of faithful parishioners who, unfailing in Christian love, compassion, and generosity, have responded to the needs of their day, reaching across our city and around the globe in service to the world. From the founding of an orphanage in 1868 to serve children of the Civil War to modern-day ministry in South Africa, Jerusalem, and the city of Washington, St. John’s has touched our nation and our world. St. John’s has more than 1,000 members. Newcomers to the Washington area are invited to become members of the parish, and visitors are always welcome at services and parish activities.
The bell in St. John’s steeple weighs nearly 1,000 pounds. It was cast by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph, at his Boston foundry in August 1822, and installed November 30, 1822. President James Monroe authorized a $100 contribution of public funds toward its purchase, as it also served as an alarm bell for the neighborhoods and public buildings in the vicinity of the church. St. John’s bell is one of two Revere bells in Washington, both cast and installed in churches during 1822. However, of the two, St. John’s bell is the only one that has been in continuous service since its installation.
St. John’s Church also features 25 historic stained glass windows, designed and produced by the noted Lorin Stained Glass Windows firm of Chartres, France. They were commissioned in 1883, and installed in St. John’s from 1883-1885. They depict scenes from the life of Jesus, and scenes from the Gospel of St. John, for whom the church is named. The central stained glass window over the altar is a unique rendition of the Last Supper. The disciples are seen on both sides of a long table, with Jesus the central figure at the far end of the table, and St. John leaning on his shoulder. All of the Lorin windows throughout the main floor, and the gallery, are outstanding examples of the unique style of the Lorin windows of the late 19th century. Click here to learn more about St. John’s historic stained glass windows.
The Parish House adjacent to the church at 1525 H Street, N.W. was built in 1836. It is a National Historic Landmark. It was the residence in 1842 of Alexander Baring, Lord Ashburton, who negotiated a treaty that year with U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster. This treaty established the final boundaries between Canada and the United States from Maine to Minnesota, and helped avert a possible war between Great Britain and the United States. The building, also known as Ashburton House, later served for a period, prior to the Civil War, as the site of the British Legation to the U.S.
A comprehensive, documented, 349 page history of St. John’s Church, with photographs: St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square: The History and Heritage of the Church of the Presidents, Washington, DC by Richard F. Grimmett can be purchased by using this link. All proceeds from the sale of this book go to St. John’s.
Regular tours of the church follow the 11:00 a.m. service (10:30 a.m. during the summer) on most Sundays. Special tours may be arranged by contacting the church office at (202) 347-8766.