The Archdiocese of Washington
Catholicism was brought to Maryland in 1634 when Jesuit Father Andrew White celebrated the first Mass held in the original 13 colonies, on the shores of St. Clement’s Island. From that humble beginning in St. Mary’s County to the thriving, diverse Catholic community which exists today, the story of the Archdiocese of Washington is one of struggle, hope and faith.
Founded as a haven for Catholics and a place of religious toleration, Maryland was the site of the Religious Act of 1649 – the first legislation a representative body ever enacted for religious freedom. Sadly, this freedom did not last. Between 1690 and 1776, Catholics in Maryland suffered under oppressive penal laws. They persevered, however, and many became patriots for the cause of American independence.
Despite these early obstacles, the Catholic faith flourished. Historic parishes abound today, including St. Francis Xavier, Newtowne, which dates to 1640; St. Patrick, the first Catholic church in the original Federal City; and St. Augustine, founded by freed slaves in 1858 and canonically established in 1865. Archbishop John Carroll, appointed the first archbishop of the United States in 1789, was born in Upper Marlboro. Georgetown University, the nation’s first Catholic college, was founded here in 1789. The Archdiocese also is home to The Catholic University of America.
Originally part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the City of Washington was named a separate archdiocese by Pope Pius XII in 1939, under the direction of Baltimore’s Archbishop Michael J. Curley. Eight years later, Archbishop Patrick A. O’Boyle was named the first resident archbishop, and Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s Counties joined Washington as part of the new archdiocese. Archbishop O’Boyle immediately began his pioneering work to desegregate Catholic schools and parishes, build new churches and establish new social service ministries. He was elevated to Cardinal in 1967 and retired in 1973.
Archbishop William Baum succeeded Cardinal O’Boyle. Elevated to cardinal in 1976, he was transferred to the Roman Curia four years later, where he served until 2001. While Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Baum was joined by the faithful of the Archdiocese in welcoming our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, on his first papal visit to the United States.
In 1980, James A. Hickey, a native of Michigan, was appointed Archbishop of Washington. He was elevated to the College of Cardinals in 1988. Under Cardinal Hickey’s leadership, the Archdiocese of Washington built and renovated churches and schools and he greatly expanded service ministries, establishing programs such as Victory Housing, Birthing and Care and the Archdiocesan Health Care and Legal Networks. The Archdiocese also grew in diversity, with Mass celebrated in over 20 languages, including Chinese, French, Korean, Polish, Portuguese and Vietnamese. Today, Spanish-language Masses are celebrated at 30 locations to meet the needs of the nearly 200,000 Catholics of Hispanic ancestry living in our community. The Archdiocese also is enriched by the gifts of the 100,000 Catholics of African and Caribbean descent who call it home.
In November 2000, Cardinal Hickey retired as Archbishop. His successor, Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, then-Archbishop of Newark, was installed in ceremonies held in early January 2001. Just six weeks later, on February 21, he was elevated to the College of Cardinals in a ceremony held at the Vatican.
Cardinal McCarrick rapidly put his mark on the Archdiocese, emphasizing vocations and ministry to the diverse cultures within the Archdiocese, particularly the Hispanic community. Within his first year, he visited all 140 parishes, opened a new seminary for missionary priests of the Archdiocese and started a diocesan-wide stewardship initiative.
In May 2006, Pope Benedict XVI appointed then-Bishop Donald W. Wuerl as the new Archbishop of Washington. He was installed on June 22, 2006. Archbishop Wuerl, the former Bishop of Pittsburgh, is known nationally for his commitment to Catholic education. He quickly initiated archdiocesan-wide programs to strengthen our Catholic schools, enhance catechetical programs and renew Catholic Charities. His successful initiative on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in 2007 has since been adopted by the Catholic bishops for use throughout the United States. He is regularly present in parishes, schools, Church programs throughout the archdiocese. His teaching ministry is reflected in his many pastoral letters, as well as his blogs, e-letters and numerous articles and books. The Cardinal is active in community and interfaith activities, joining with civic and business leaders to promote education, service to the poor, pastoral assistance to refugees and immigrants as well as interfaith understanding.
In April 2008, he hosted Pope Benedict XVI in Washington as part of the Holy Father’s historic journey to the United States. He also welcomed Pope Francis to Washington in September 2015 for His Holiness’ pastoral visit to the United States. In October 2011 Cardinal Wuerl opened the archdiocesan seminary, Saint John Paul II, which was visited in 2015 by Pope Francis.
Cardinal Wuerl helped direct the October 2012 Synod of Bishops on The New Evangelization and was a member of both the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family.
In June 2014 Cardinal Wuerl convoked the first Archdiocesan Synod. Its statutes and recommendations as well as Cardinal Wuerl’s pastoral letter on the Synod entitled, “Manifesting the Kingdom,” may be found here.
Today, the Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 620,000 Catholics. The 95 Catholic schools educate over 27,000 children while service agencies, including Catholic Charities and Victory Housing, have made the Archdiocese one of the largest private social service providers in the region. Every year, thousands of people receive counseling, shelter, adoption and foster care assistance, health care, immigration and legal aid, affordable housing and more through the care of archdiocesan staff and volunteers. New immigrants find assistance at the many archdiocesan ministries serving our diverse community, including the Spanish Catholic Center.
Increasingly, adult Catholics are finding new educational and spiritual resources. Parish-based programs and classes, increased opportunities for adoration of the Eucharist, evangelization outreach and small faith communities are filling their hunger to know Christ and their faith more deeply than ever. Although diverse in nationality, Catholics of the Archdiocese of Washington share a common faith and a commitment to reflect Christ in the world through prayer, education and service.