a brief history of the parish
St. Stephen and the Incarnation was founded in 1925 when the Incarnation parish, founded in 1867 at 12th and N Streets NW, merged with St. Stephen’s parish, located at 14th and Irving Streets NW and founded in 1892. For its first 30 years, St. Stephen and the Incarnation was a typical, well-attended, white, middle-class church: choir, drama society, dances, bridge luncheons, study groups.
As the neighborhood changed, so did St. Stephen’s, which in the 1950s became the first integrated Episcopal church in Washington.
With the 60s, Major Changes
In 1960, the Rev. William Wendt became rector, and St. Stephen’s became active in the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and anti-war movements, as well as many local concerns. The church was described in the Washington Post in the late 60s as “one of the few viable political institutions in this politically emasculated Federal city—a militant, hit-the-street-and-demonstrate church."
When Martin Luther King Jr. was slain and riots erupted a block away on 14th Street, within hours, St. Stephen’s was the site for the first requiem eucharist for Dr. King. Paul Moore, then the Suffragan Bishop of Washington, wrote, “The church was so full that people coming in could hardly find a place to stand, yet when the prayers began a reverent silence enveloped the congregation, and we could plainly hear the wail of sirens, the sound of gunshots, and the fearsome sound of men running as fast as they could, soles beating on the pavement.”
In 1976, St. Stephen’s parishioners John Fortunato and Wayne Schwandt announced their intention to have a holy union ceremony at St. Stephen’s Church. The Rt. Rev. John T. Walker, Bishop Coadjutor of Washington, objected, as the Episcopal Church had not yet approved such rites. The participants then decided to relocate the service to Washington First Congregational Church, with full participation by members of St. Stephen’s Church. Coming a few short months after the national church voted to allow women to be ordained, the Fortunato/Schwandt holy union service caused another earthquake in the Episcopal Church and was a major catalyst for wider conversations about gay rights throughout the Church.
In the early 1970s, St. Stephen’s was at the forefront of efforts in the Episcopal Church to allow women to be ordained as priests.
On November 10, 1974, the Rev. Alison Cheek stood before the altar of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Church, said the words “On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ broke bread,” and thus launched the public ministry of Episcopal women priests in their own church.
Up until that moment, no woman had publicly celebrated the Eucharist in an Episcopal Church. Cheek and ten other women had been “irregularly” ordained five months earlier in Philadelphia. But with charges and countercharges flying through the denomination, and especially in its House of Bishops, about the appropriateness or indeed “validity” of the ordinations, no Episcopal congregation was ready to offer a public altar to the new priests. Until the wardens and vestry of St. Stephen’s and Bill Wendt decided that they wanted Alison Cheek, whom they had known since she was a deacon in the Diocese of Virginia, to minister among them. The Washington Post described it like this: “In a service that ranged from solemn prayer to joyous hugs and bursts of spontaneous applause, a woman celebrated holy communion in an Episcopal church here yesterday for the first time in the history of the denomination.
On September 7, 1975, a second “irregular” ordination took place—this time at St. Stephen’s Church. Four more women, including St. Stephen’s parishioner Lee McGee, were ordained.
These two acts at St. Stephen’s convinced the Episcopal Church that the movement towards the ordination of women was unstoppable.
Women’s ordination was approved by the national church in 1976.
Service Work and Innovation
In 1968, we began operation of our hot meal program, Loaves and Fishes. Ever since, we have served hot lunches on weekends to people in need of food; today we serve an average of 300 meals every Saturday and Sunday. This is one of the longest-running soup kitchens on the East Coast.
In the 1960s, St. Stephen’s was designated a center for liturgical experimentation. Soon St. Stephen’s was adopting new worship practices that are now commonplace in the Episcopal Church, including the reading of the Gospel from the middle of the congregation, gathering around the altar for communion, and standing—instead of kneeling—for prayer. “In everything we did we were seeking to make liturgy more accessible,” said the Rev. Barry Evans, assistant priest at St. Stephen’s at the time.
Our work in our neighborhood led us in the early 1980s to form the Samaritan Ministry, which is now a city-wide social service organization supported by dozens of churches. Today our building is home to over one dozen nonprofit organizations, and is in use 7 days a week, sometimes 24 hours a day.
Throughout these years and the decades to follow, St. Stephen’s experimented with the liturgy, trying different ways to bring new life to the 2,000-year-old liturgy of the Church. Innovations begun at St. Stephen’s are now the norm for many churches. At one point, parishioners prepared an inclusive-language version of the lectionary (the compendium of Bible readings for the church year) that was used in churches across the country until modern Bible translators published inclusive versions of the Bible.
An Incubator for Church Leaders
A key part of St. Stephen's history and heritage is raising up and training leaders of the Church—both for the parish itself and for the wider Church. Over many decades, many St. Stephen's members have heard the call of the Holy Spirit to attend seminary and become ordained as deacons or priests in the Episcopal Church. And most of the time, the parish is assigned a seminarian, who uses the parish as a training ground for their future ministry.
St. Stephen’s Today
Today, St. Stephen’s is charting new waters in additional aspects of church life. St. Stephen’s has developed a model of ministry and leadership in which service is provided by lay people and clergy, paid staff and volunteers—a model that reflects “the priesthood of all believers.” Our lay leaders are our vestry and wardens, who are elected by the congregation.
In 2006, the Diocese of Washington gave St. Stephen’s a grant to start a Spanish-speaking congregation. Today the Misa Alegría is a vibrant, growing congregation that worships in Spanish every Sunday at 5:30pm. Todos estan bienvenidos! All are welcome!
Learn more of our history from the pages below, most of which are facsimiles of display panels created for our Widening the Circle campaign several years ago.