Ordinariate Community Has a Spiritual Home in Washington, D.C.

From the ‘wilderness in Egypt to the Promised Land’ is how one former Episcopalian describes the move to a church in the nation’s capital.

Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, celebrated Mass Sept. 7 at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington.
Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson, ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, celebrated Mass Sept. 7 at Immaculate Conception Church in Washington. (photo: Elza Daniel)

WASHINGTON — A formerly Episcopal community that entered the Catholic Church in 2011 marked a historic moment in its journey to Rome, when the faithful gathered on Sept. 7 in downtown Washington for their first regularly scheduled Sunday Mass in the nation’s capital.

St. Luke’s at Immaculate Conception — as the community will now be known — offered its first Mass at Immaculate Conception Church in downtown Washington, after its move from its former home in a small, rented church in Bladensburg, Md.

St. Luke’s made headlines in 2011 when it became the first Episcopal church in the Washington area, and the second in the state of Maryland, to come into the Catholic Church under the provisions of Pope Benedict XVI’s Anglicanorum Coetibus. Anglicanorum Coetibus is an apostolic constitution that makes it possible for groups of Anglican congregations to enter the Catholic Church, while maintaining distinctive elements of their spiritual, pastoral and liturgical patrimony.

The Vatican-approved Mass used by the St. Luke’s community makes use of prayers from a number of Anglican and Episcopal sources, including the Anglican Books of Common Prayer from 1549 and 1662. The Mass fulfills the Sunday obligation.

St. Luke’s rented its original church, a small, picturesque church, from the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, but the lease was set to run out in October. Parishioners were concerned about where they would go, until it was announced in the spring that Immaculate Conception in downtown Washington would welcome them.


Assistance From the Local Church

Father Mark Lewis, the pastor of St. Luke’s, who shepherded his flock from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church, thanked Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Msgr. James Watkins, pastor of Immaculate Conception, and other local Catholic clergy for making possible St. Luke’s new shared arrangement with Immaculate Conception.

“The Archdiocese of Washington has given us strong support in our transition to Catholicism, in establishing an ordinariate community and now by allowing our community to be placed in the best possible position for success,” said Father Lewis. Father Lewis said that the new location will make the ordinariate worship more easily accessible and “deepen the ties of the communion with the local Catholic Church.”

Msgr. Jeffrey Steenson of Houston, Texas, ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the first U.S. ordinariate, celebrated and preached at the Mass, which featured music from the newly formed St. Benet Schola, a women’s group that specializes in plain chant. An ordinary is similar to a diocesan bishop.

Msgr. Steenson used the Gospel passage of the day to reflect on the centrality of the hierarchical Church and joked that the reading’s injunction to engage in kindly fraternal correction meant that the faithful will have “jury duty in heaven.”

The community’s first Sunday Mass at Immaculate Conception drew a large, enthusiastic crowd.

“I didn’t just like it — I loved it,” said Holly Henderson, a member of the St. Luke’s community. “It was everything I had thought it would be and more. I knew it was going to be beautiful, because I had visited Immaculate Conception and had seen how beautiful it is. I felt, in coming to Immaculate Conception, we were going from the wilderness in Egypt to the Promised Land. The angels were singing. I almost felt we were attending a wedding — of Christ and his bride, the Church.”

Henderson, who contributed the bread and wine for the Mass, has deep roots at St. Luke’s. She was baptized there by an Episcopal clergyman as an infant and has attended St. Luke’s at several periods of her life. She and her husband, Michael, came into the Catholic Church during the Easter season of 2012. Their infant daughter, Phoebe, was recently baptized at St. Luke’s. Holly is on the parish council, while Michael is on the finance committee.

Another former Episcopalian, Susannah Patton, who had never before attended an ordinariate-use Mass, was also pleased with the liturgy.

“Everything about it was elevated — the language, the transcendent music, the sense of holiness. And the joy of the community [impressed me],” Patton said.


Ad Orientem

Immaculate Conception has both a free-standing altar and another altar that one community member called “stunning,” at which Msgr. Steenson celebrated ad orientem. There is also an altar rail at which people knelt to receive holy Communion.

“Praise God, it has happened. And it has happened well,” said Heidi Seward, a member of the community and a member of the St. Benet Schola, which in addition to the regular choir provided music for the Mass. Seward was particularly happy that “the tubby, old 19th-century tracker organ up in the loft sounded wonderful,” as Msgr. Steenson entered with the schola singing Ecce Sacerdos Magnus.

The St. Benet Schola, named in honor of the Benedictine tradition, with a nod to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is composed of women and specializes in plain chant.

“Alongside our polyphonic choir, who sang a Mass by Hans Leo Hassler and a motet by Victoria during Holy Communion, the schola sang the Propers,” said Father James Bradley, an ordinariate priest from England, who has been involved in establishing the schola, referring to the parts of the Sept. 7 liturgy that were specific to that day’s Mass. Father Bradley added, “The Propers are integral parts of the liturgy, and we are using the ancient chants of the Roman Gradual as set to English by the sisters of Wantage, who are now part of the ordinariate in England. The result is music that is at once Catholic in origin and Anglican in flavor; [it is] universal and particular.”

The Sisters of Wantage, former Anglicans who were part of a religious order founded in the 19th century by an Anglican vicar, had been known as the Community of St. Mary the Virgin. Now, they are Sisters of the Blessed Virgin.


Social-Media Campaign

Members also went to great lengths to get the word out in the two weeks leading up to Sept. 7,with a social-media campaign, including using Twitter to inform Anglicans and people who were baptized in the Catholic Church but have not yet completed the sacraments of initiation (and who, as Msgr. Steenson stressed in his homily, are now eligible for membership in the ordinariate because of a 2013 decision by Pope Francis modifying the norms that govern the ordinariates).

Colin and Karin Tooze, former Episcopalians who were received into the Catholic Church last May, attended Sunday’s Mass.

“People worked so hard behind the scenes to make today possible — both cradle Catholics and converts from Anglicanism or other faith traditions,” Colin said. “What I think we all share in common is gratitude — to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI for creating a place for former Anglicans seeking to be in communion with the Holy See and to Cardinal Wuerl, [Washington Auxiliary] Bishop [Barry] Knestout and Msgr. Watkins, for turning that hospitality into a concrete reality here in Washington.”

James Farr, another recent convert from the Episcopal Church, said he is looking forward to being a part of what he predicted will be a growing community.

“Everything about yesterday's Mass, the beauty of Immaculate Conception Church, the support from Msgr. Watkins, the outstanding music, the many wonderful people and Father Lewis and the former Washington, D.C.-area Anglican groups, all brought together at St. Luke's at ICC, showed me that, indeed, all of us working together can fulfill a vision for the people of the Washington area,” Farr said.

The St. Luke’s Community will also offer a weekday Mass every day but Saturday. These ordinariate Masses are in addition to the regular Masses at Immaculate Conception.

Charlotte Hays is a member of the St. Luke’s at Immaculate Conception community.