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St. Margaret of Scotland, whom we honor as our patron, was canonized for her concern with and ministry to the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the sick. She built schools and hospitals, and spent time each day listening to the needs of the people in the outer court of the castle where she reigned as queen with her husband, Malcolm III. The history of this parish has continued the witness of Margaret. For more than a century, the expression of our call to love God and to serve our neighbor has taken different forms, always faithful to St. Margaret’s commitment to be Christ’s witness in the world.

In 1892, the year St. Margaret’s became a gleam in local Episcopalians’ eyes, the area surrounding the church was an affluent suburb with wide open spaces. Dairy cows still grazed in pastures, and what is now Florida Avenue was then Boundary Street, the northern limit of Washington. Created out of Rock Creek Parish, St. Margaret’s was originally intended to serve parishioners from 14th Street, N.W., to Rock Creek, and from Florida Avenue to Piney Branch. Connecticut Avenue ended at the doorstep of what would become St. Margaret’s. The families who lived in the estates on the hill along Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road recognized the need for a church in the neighborhood. The first services were held in the basement of Mintwood, the large country home of Lawrence and Margaret Sands.

Four prominent families formed the nexus of the new faith community there – the Tuttles, Truesdells, Weimers, and Fishers met in the Truesdell home on April 11, 1892, to plan for the design and consecration of a new church and to raise funds for its construction. Not coincidentally, most of them owned property north of Florida Avenue, and they hoped to subdivide it as the neighborhood grew. Truesdell, in fact, was a city commissioner and deeply involved in the effort to extend Connecticut Avenue beyond Florida Avenue and across Rock Creek, opening the area to development. When the time came to name the church, it was also no coincidence that several of the wealthy new parishioners were named Margaret or were related to Margarets, and it’s generally thought that the church's name tacitly honored them.

A site was selected at the corner of Connecticut and Bancroft and six lots were purchased for the grand sum of $47,500. A small chapel, running east to west, was completed in 1895, with the front steps on Bancroft Place. The altar was placed in the west end where the present “Sower” window is located.

Richard Howell

The first rector of St. Margaret’s sported a well-fed air, a luxuriant mustache, and a combover.
The first rector, the Reverend Richard Lewis Howell, “a young minister of striking oratorical abilities,” had moved to town in the early 1890s. He got wind of the nascent church and the $5,000 raised back in 1892. It appears he arranged to be appointed the assistant to the Rock Creek Parish rector, from which perch he stepped up fundraising for St. Margaret’s, oversaw the building of the chapel, and served as rector until February 1, 1899. His reason for resigning was communicated as due “to the continued ill health of my wife and of myself, which in our mutual love for St. Margaret’s we feel should no longer be permitted to stand in the way of its prosperity.” Intriguingly, Howell was known in newspapers as “the richest clergyman in America,” thanks to the fortune he inherited from his father. 

St. Margaret's in its first incarnation

The church as it appeared in the snowy winter of 1895. It is recognizable as the southern end of the church, and the little steeple at one end is still there.
By 1900, the congregation had grown enormously. Rather than build an entirely new structure, it was proposed that the church be shifted to a north/south axis. The original structure became the transept for the redesigned church. The cost of this extension was to be capped at $2,500. The new configuration of the building was completed in 1904. By 1909, at least one of the three Tiffany windows was place, with the others to follow soon thereafter. 

The vestry paid off and burned the mortgage speedily, and by 1913, St. Margaret's was feeling growing pains again. The available space was deemed insufficient for the needs of the ministry and mission of the parish. And while the vestry was all male, women played the most forward-looking role in the young parish's development. It was the Rector's Aid Society, an organization of the women of St. Margaret's, that proposed the idea of purchasing property directly adjacent to the sanctuary north on Connecticut Avenue for the addition of a much-needed parish hall. To punctuate their serious intentions, the RAS also pledged $1,000 annually for the construction and outfitting of the hoped-for parish hall.

St. Margaret’s became one of the largest churches in the diocese, moving from hope-filled beginnings to become an established, growing, and positive presence in the District of Columbia. The rector at the time, The Rev. Herbert Scott Smith was, by all accounts, an exceedingly proper and meticulous man. He never married and lived with his sister Caroline, who served as his hostess, in the rectory on Mintwood Place. He led the parish through the upheaval of World War I and the economic trials of the Great Depression. Smith’s long tenure at St. Margaret’s and the growth of the parish under his rectorship suggest that he was a man perfectly suited to his job—minister to an affluent parish in an affluent neighborhood. A highlight of his ministry was no doubt his officiating at the wedding of President Woodrow Wilson to his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, in 1915.

Malcolm Marshall

The Rev. Malcolm Marshall posed with two nervous-looking newlyweds in 1965.
By the middle of the 20th century, St. Margaret’s took its role as a leader in the witness of Christ very seriously. Perhaps no single fact testifies to this more clearly than the action of the vestry taken on May 6, 1940. At that meeting, a resolution was passed expressing the earnest prayers of the vestry that the Diocese of Washington would "give to the women of St. Margaret's the same right to vote and to hold office as is now conferred upon men." This statement placed St. Margaret's squarely in the vanguard of the movement for gender equality; the Diocese would take a decade before such a simple act of justice as permitting a woman to serve on parish's vestry would be permitted.

World War II made Washington an even busier place, and the parish opened its doors to provide shelter and food for the thousands of servicemen in transition through the nation's capital. Changes continued after the war. Homes and row houses were replaced by office buildings, new high-rise apartments, and hotels. The civil rights movement was changing the face of America, and the neighborhoods around the church were leading the way, becoming the bastions of ethnic, economic, cultural, and sexual diversity that they are today. Throughout each and every turn and challenge, St. Margaret’s was led into new acts of service and witness to those around it. In time, the parish would commit much of its resources on ministries of outreach, spending in the rector Malcolm Marshall's own words, "....about fifty cents for others, for every dollar spent within the parish." One ministry in particular grew out of Marshall's vision for those around St. Margaret's, that of engaging the youth of the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, "...teenagers, supposedly 'toughs'" whose welfare and spiritual guidance became one of the many outreach foci.

The people of St. Margaret's have always been open to the power of God's grace, which sees and knows and calls each of us to realize our fullest potential as human beings create d in God's image. In 1987, The Reverend Dr. Vienna Cobb Anderson was called to be the sixth rector of St. Margaret’s, and the first woman to serve as rector in D.C. The Rev. Dr. Anderson brought with her a tremendous energy and flair for the theatrical in worship and liturgy. Within the parish's liturgical life, the celebration of the Eucharist became a part of both Sunday morning services, and the participation of the laity broadened and increased. And most significantly, the voice of justice from the pulpit took on a new authority. Under her leadership, the gay Roman Catholic organization Dignity was offered a home at St. Margaret’s when it was forbidden to meet in Catholic churches.

Alleluia, she's here!

St. Margaret’s was giddy with excitement when Washington's first female rector arrived.

In 1995, the Rev. Dr. Anderson announced her retirement and in 1997, the Rev. Susan Blue became the seventh rector of St. Margaret’s. St. Margaret's continued to grow in both its membership and attendance. The hallmarks of the Rev. Blue’s ministry were a devotion to pastoral care and a commitment to the aging buildings of the church. She oversaw the Parish Hall renovation, and the repair of roof and plumbing systems, the unseen and unsung heroes of the church’s physical plant. When she retired in 2010, the Vestry renamed the building fund the “Rev. Susan N. Blue Building Preservation Fund.”

After prayerful consideration, St. Margaret's called the Rev. Kimberly Lucas as eighth rector in 2011, and with her came her husband, Mark Retherford and their four children. For the first time in many years, the rectory is filled with small voices making a joyful noise unto the Lord. Today, St. Margaret’s has become a home for the many streams of people that flow into Washington – affluent and homeless; gay, straight, and transgender; cradle Episcopalians and wandering atheists; kids and old folks. Languages from around the globe are heard in the parish hall, all raised in voices of praise, justice, and witness.

For more information about church history, art, and archives please contact Farar Elliott.