As they have ever since free men and women of color -- including some people emancipated from slavery -- founded their parish in 1858, members of St. Augustine Parish gathered inside their church to praise God at Mass June 2.
But on that day, the mother church of African American Catholics in the nation's capital literally opened its doors to history, as it often has in its past. And when new Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory appeared in the doorway of St. Augustine Church to celebrate the Mass, people offered a spontaneous standing ovation and shouts of joy.
The nearly 50 voices in the combined St. Augustine Gospel Choir and Chorale sang a soaring opening hymn, "Let Heavenly Music Fill This Place," and Archbishop Gregory smiled broadly as he held his crosier and blessed the congregation while he processed to the altar. As he walked by, many people in the congregation took photos of him with their cellphones.
"It is with great pleasure and gratitude to God that we welcome you to the parish of St. Augustine," Father Patrick Smith, St. Augustine's pastor, said moments later, and the congregation again offered loud applause.
He noted how the parish on that day had "the privilege and honor to welcome you as the first African American archbishop of Washington."
Archbishop Gregory, who appeared profoundly moved by the parish's welcome and by the opening hymn, offered a gesture of thanks.
Father Smith noted that the archbishop's presence was "uniquely historic and profoundly affirming" to the parish, and he pointed out how St. Augustine's founders started their parish to provide a Catholic school for black children, and 100 years later, in 1958, St. Carthage School in Chicago opened its doors to black students in its neighborhood, "and one of those was a boy named Wilton," who found his faith and vocation there, and who now joined them at Mass as the archbishop of Washington.
Father Smith, whose parish school continues its educational legacy in serving minority children in its neighborhood, said "we in the archdiocese and in this parish owe a debt of gratitude to the priests and sisters who opened their hearts" to educating black children in that Chicago parish, and "because of that, we are able to say, 'Archbishop Wilton Gregory, welcome to Washington.'"
Later in his homily, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged St. Augustine's history and "how it is identified with the sacred heritage of African American Catholics."
"I stand on holy ground, as do all of you when you gather each Sunday for the Eucharist," he said. "Today a son of the African diaspora stands in your midst as the shepherd of the entire family of faith that is the Archdiocese of Washington."
Preaching about that day's solemnity, Archbishop Gregory said, "The Ascension of the Lord Jesus today calls us all to long for that day when we will be joined with Christ and his Father through the grace of the Holy Spirit."
He noted that artists over the centuries have depicted heaven as a place of billowy clouds with winged angels, or as a great banquet place, while many adults and children think of it as a place where their earthly desires will be fulfilled. He noted that churches are designed to "connect us to the past, and they must also point us to the future we long for with Jesus."
Heaven, he said, "is that place where we will be known and loved ... by One worthy of all love ... (and) be united with our Lord, who fashioned us to be united with him forever."
The archbishop also said that in heaven, people also will be united with people of faith who have come before and will come after them.
In the offertory procession, two students from St. Augustine Catholic School, a girl and a boy wearing their uniforms, handed the bread and wine to Archbishop Gregory. They were preceded by adults carrying special mementos of St. Augustine's history and its current ministries.
Sister Mary Stephen Beauford -- a member of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the first African American religious community in the United States whose order taught at St. Augustine School for more than 90 years -- brought up an original hand bell from the school. Sister Gloria Agumagu, the school's current principal whose Handmaid of the Holy Child Jesus order continues that educational legacy, brought up a science text book from the school's STEM program.
The offertory gifts included a photograph of the original St. Augustine Church, which in 1889 hosted the first National Congress of Colored Catholics where Father Augustus Tolton, the nation's first African American priest whose cause for canonization is now under consideration, celebrated the opening Mass.
Another photo depicted members of the Federated Colored Catholics, a group founded in the 1920s by parishioner Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner that worked for racial justice and understanding in the church. The offertory gifts also included a sleeping bag representing the outreach of St. Augustine Parish's Team HOPE, which provides help and friendship to the homeless and other poor people in the community.
And to symbolize the parish's musical heritage, the offertory gifts included sheet music from the St. Augustine Chorale from the late 1860s. That group traces its beginnings to an opera company founded by early parishioners there.
After Communion, St. Augustine Catholic School students presented Archbishop Gregory with a poster that depicted him as an altar server and current students in that role, along with other photos of life at the school.
Before his final blessing, Archbishop Gregory smiled and said, "I hear this is how you celebrate every Sunday!"
After Mass, the hundreds of people who had filled the majestic church lined up to greet Archbishop Gregory, and several people reflected on what his visit meant to them.
I'm thrilled, I'm thrilled!" Cecelia Johnson, a longtime St. Augustine parishioner, told the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.
Noting that African American Catholics historically haven't had a lot of representation in the church's leadership, she said, "It's been a long time coming. ... Just to see somebody who looks like us, who has come from humble beginnings like we did. ... It speaks to you, that with Catholic education you can go so far."
Mark Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.