St. Luke Catholic Church

A Close-Knit Community of Many Doors

Father Cornelius Ejiogu, originally from Lagos, Nigeria, is now in his third year as pastor.

I visited St. Luke Catholic Church on Dec. 2 for the third in a series exploring worship communities east of the river from the perspective of a participant-observer, a roving Jew in the pew ...

St. Luke's occupies most of the 4900 block of East Capitol Street SE, in Ward 7's Capitol View neighborhood. In the center is the main sanctuary, where hundreds gather for Sunday Mass. To the east is St. Luke Center, with banquet facilities and room for many community activities. To the west is the rectory with a chapel at its rear. This smaller space has room for a few dozen chairs but seems to fill up with just a handful of participants. This is the place to be at St. Luke's on weekdays: for worship, for study, and for cheesecake. 

History and Mission

St. Luke's is a Roman Catholic Church founded in 1957 and associated with the St. Joseph Society of the Sacred Heart, or “Josephites.” The society formed after the Civil War to serve newly freed slaves. The Josephite mission has evolved over 140+ years but remains solely dedicated to the African-American community. One of three Josephite parishes east of the river, St Luke's serves Far Northeast and Southeast DC and Prince George’s County. Josephites also operate a seminary in the District and another three dozen churches and schools across seven states. 

Holy Eucharist, congregational literature says, is a way of celebrating “our Lord, Jesus Christ ... the center of our joy” and “an essential part of our belief system.” In Church practice, Eucharist and other sacraments are for baptized Catholics. But Father Cornelius Ejiogu, in his third year as St. Luke's pastor, encourages “all who find it spiritually fulfilling” to participate in other aspects of the Mass as well as prayer services and study. 

The regular schedule includes daily services and two weekly Bible studies. Instruction toward baptism is available for those interested. In addition the church operates a food bank and hosts many community activities as well as regular AA and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. “Our job is not to drag people into the Church,” Fr. Cornelius explains, “but to express the Gospel with our lives.”

More Than One Door 

The central doors of St. Luke's main sanctuary welcome most first-time visitors. But I chose another route.

The exact location of weekday services is not listed on website or bulletin, and I failed to inquire beforehand. So, on a cold morning at 7:55 a.m., I arrived at the locked main doors in some confusion. Once I found it, however, the small chapel door – under the maroon awning off the parking area – opened to a more intimate welcome.

Several of the small group already present introduced themselves, while others prepared the altar or sat in contemplation. One participant disseminated the day's readings. Fr. Cornelius opened Mass with a word of welcome to me, an obvious stranger (who couldn't even find the door). 

As Mass progressed, different congregants read scripture, led prayers, and helped serve Communion. Fr. Cornelius offered a short teaching linking the day's scriptures to the season of Advent and conducted the Eucharist service. A regular participant waved me into a semi-circle facing the altar for consecration of the host, so I was included in the offering of host and wine. But my signal that I was not receiving was acknowledged without remark. I felt welcome to participate as my faith allowed, leaving the small sanctuary with an ethical teaching to ponder and spiritual sustenance for the world outside.

Cheesecake in Turbulent Times

Wednesday evening Bible study – be sure to check the time (which differs in winter from that posted) – was small, welcoming, and enriching. In addition to passages to be read on the following Sunday, study includes some aspect of the liturgy and sacraments. Participants suggest topics in advance, so Fr. Cornelius can bring appropriate resources to share. 

It was clear from the gentle ribbing about who would sit where and whether everyone would receive a fair share of cheesecake that participants knew one another. There were no in-jokes to make a newcomer feel like an outsider, however, and reference to previously studied material was shared with opportunities for questions. There were openings to ensure that everyone was following and could express their own reflections.  

The hour is bookended with participant-led prayer. On the evening I visited, prayer and discussion focused on mass shootings that day and, more generally, on the violence of our times. “Many parishioners have lost children or grandchildren through gun violence,” Fr. Cornelius shared in a separate conversation, adding that addressing such losses was part of a month-long November ritual remembering parish deceased.

Brokenness and Grace

And, as it happens, a loss to gun violence was the impetus for my first real encounter with St. Luke's earlier this year: Amari Jenkins, age 21, had been participating in a program at St. Luke Center when he was shot to death. In broad daylight on East Capitol Street. On the steps of the church.

In the wake of this shattering experience, directly across from the home of friends I was visiting at the time, I contacted St. Luke's through its website. I wanted to share my prayers for the church and to ask that they pass along my condolences to survivors of the young man, whose name I did not yet know. Fr. Cornelius responded with an invitation to join a community memorial service the following week. 

“I saw a community coming together from across tribes and denominations, brought together by the broken peace of our neighborhood,” wrote my friend, Micah Bales, after his family and I attended the service. “I witnessed God’s power made perfect in weakness.”

The St. Luke's community might not have known the Jenkins family before their terrible loss, but the parish mobilized its spiritual and communal resources to help mend the heartbreak of Amari's mourners and grieving neighbors, as well as that of the church itself. “St. Luke's is a close-knit group, but we are also part of the neighborhood,” says Fr. Cornelius. “We are sustained by the mercy of God's grace, and we are here to share that.”

St. Luke Catholic Church, 4925 East Capitol St. SE. 202-584-8322. www.stlukechurchssj.org

Sunday Mass: 8:30 and 11 a.m. plus Saturday vigil at 4 p.m. Monthly Masses in Cameroon and Congolese. Weekdays: Bible study, morning Mass followed by novenas. Many additional activities.

Wednesday evening Bible study at St. Luke Catholic Church. With cheesecake, though.
If this entrance is closed, be calm and try the chapel door.

Virginia Avniel Spatz participates in a range of Jewish and other worship communities. She participated in the “Building Abrahamic Partnerships” program of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and has worked on interfaith and interdenominational projects. She blogs on faith topics at songeveryday.org.


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