our history

When churches are founded, they have an identity that is forged early and endures. Our church’s patron saint is Alban, the first British martyr, a Roman soldier who gave his life for the British priest who converted him.

St. Alban’s was founded on a small plot of land on a hilltop, at a busy crossroads, in a mixed neighborhood, in a border region, in a national capital. It was founded as a schoolhouse mission and became a free church in 1854. It has remained a mission-minded church ever since. It has an endowment but is strongly supported by pledges, offerings, and the time and labor of volunteers. It founded five mission churches in a growing capital city in the early 1900’s. It has sponsored missionaries in Asia, Alaska, and elsewhere.  It lies on a single partly-divided acre of land, but in membership and influence it is considered a large church and a feeder to bishoprics.

Members of the Nourse family founded and nurtured St. Alban’s for half a century. Their grandfather, Joseph Nourse, was Register of the Treasury beginning in 1781 and once owned Dumbarton House in Georgetown. His favorite retreat was his farm (now the Cathedral Close), which he named Mount Alban after St. Alban’s Cathedral in England. He told his family that he wished a church could be built there. He bought a property for his son Charles at modern Sidwell Friends School. Charles Nourse and his wife Rebecca raised a large family in a mansion called The Highlands (now Zartman House). Their children Phoebe, Rosa, Mary, James, Caroline, and Pemberton Nourse founded and sponsored our church.

The Nourses worshipped at St. John’s Georgetown. At that time Episcopal churches were supported by pew rentals, not pledges. It was hard for many people to save up the annual cash payment to rent an assigned pew.

After the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was challenged by the active Roman Catholic missionary work among the growing Washington population. Holy Trinity Church welcomed Protestants to worship with their Catholic neighbors. Georgetown College and the Visitation School for Girls were excellent schools open to students of all faiths. The need was felt for a free Episcopal church near Georgetown and alternate educational establishments. In 1846 Mount Alban Farm was purchased to found a boys’ school named St. John’s Institute. The school failed but was restarted in 1847 by the Reverend Mr. Anthony Ten Broeck. He built a school chapel on the second floor and invited the neighbors to attend the Sunday service. When one or two families began to attend regularly, Bishop William Whittingham of Maryland gave the chapel the status of a missionary station. Missions make a congregation of the local community and engage in worship, education, building, and healing

The attendees included Charles Nourse’s devout young daughter Phoebe. In 1850, Phoebe died of tuberculosis at age 23. She left Ten Broeck a package containing $40 in gold to found the free church on Mount Alban. The sum would be about $4000 today, the proceeds of her needlework and probably other assets. Ten Broeck obtained a deed of half an acre of property for the church from the school trustees and obtained plans for a wooden church from Frank Wills, an English architect in New York City. Local donors and prominent friends added funds to Phoebe’s legacy, and her botanical watercolors were sold to raise money. In 1851, ground was broken by St. John’s schoolboys, who included her young brother Pemberton. Ten Broeck laid the gold coins as an offering on the altar of the school chapel and said “God willing, a church should one day stand where she desired it to be, forever free to all who wished to worship in it.”

St. John’s Institute closed in 1853. The 30-acre property on Mount Alban was purchased by Commodore Bladen Dulany, the husband of Phoebe’s sister Caroline, except for the half-acre deeded to the half-built wooden church. The Reverend Mr. Wentworth L. Childs of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, replaced Ten Broeck as the missionary. The first service was celebrated in the church on April 30, 1854. Phoebe’s mother, Rebecca, painted and sold watercolors to support the church. Her sister Mary greeted people and ushered them to their seats. Her sister Rosa prepared the altar and rang the bell. Her brother James served on the vestry. A parishioner reminisced “We were like one family.” Childs organized St. Alban’s as a parish of the Diocese of Maryland and presented it free of debt for consecration on May 24, 1855. Bishop Whittingham of Maryland, 11 clergy of the diocese, and a large congregation attended. The Reverend Dr. Smith Pyne of St. John’s, Georgetown, preached the sermon. “As you stand on this beauteous eminence, and look down upon that lovely vale, that glorious river…that growing city, the heart of a great nation, its Capitol spreading in majestic proportions, show your thankfulness for the great blessing now vouchsafed you—your beautiful, your free church, where the poorest of God’s creatures may come and worship, side by side, with the wealthiest and mightiest.”

When Childs died at age 33, the Reverend Mr. William Christian was installed five days before Fort Sumter was fired upon in early April 1861. In this border city, the loyalties of the parishioners were divided. Some owned property in Maryland and Virginia. Parishioners who were Confederate sympathizers and slaveholders were treated harshly during military occupation. Union soldiers stationed at Fort Reno in Tenleytown worshipped at St. Alban’s. Phoebe’s brother Pemberton, a young Confederate soldier, died of wounds received at First Manassas. Confederate sympathizers set fires in our neighborhood, which fortunately did not spread to the wooden church. Christian kept the congregation united in worship despite their political divisions and ministered to them in bereavement until he died of tuberculosis in 1864 at age 30. The vestry expressed “Sorrow that a voice should cease which during the evil days that have been upon us has been heard sounding only the call of the Gospel of love….” St. Alban’s has been through a lot, but the Civil War was the worst.

Rosa purchased a half-acre of land southeast of the church, where James built a rectory for Reverend Mr. John Hamilton Chew and his family. The Chews were descendants of Bishop Thomas John Claggett, the first Episcopal Bishop of Maryland consecrated on American soil in 1792. For many years James held the offices of Senior Warden and Treasurer, and the Weaver brothers of Georgetown served as vestry members and Junior Wardens.

The population of Washington increased during and after the Civil War, and the city expanded to the northwest. The post-war growth of Tenleytown induced St. Alban’s to establish a mission there in 1874. St. Columba’s Chapel was built in 1875, directly behind St. Ann’s Roman Catholic Church (founded in 1867). Infant and child mortality rates were very high, and many parishioners were interred in the cemetery by St. Columba’s.

In 1893 the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation was founded “to establish and maintain within the District of Columbia a cathedral and institutions of learning for the promotion of religion and education and charity.” In 1895 Washington became a separate diocese from Maryland, and the Reverend Mr. Henry Yates Satterlee of New York City became the first bishop of Washington. In 1896 St. Alban’s called the Reverend Mr. Philip M. Rhinelander, fresh from Oxford, who promptly redecorated the church and established church organizations like the choir and Altar Guild. Bishop Satterlee swiftly transferred Rhinelander to cathedral work. Rhinelander would become bishop of Pennsylvania and the first warden of the College of Preachers.

Bishop Satterlee assured St. Alban’s vestry that “the welfare of St. Alban’s lies very dear to my heart. I regard it as one of the most important parishes of the whole diocese and shall care for it as a church which I believe has a future before it… I want to nominate..as Mr. Rhinelander’s successor the Reverend George Bratenahl…a clergyman of marked ability, energy, and consecration of life.”

Bishop Satterlee wanted to build the National Cathedral where it stands today, overlooking the capital. That property was sold after Caroline Nourse Dulany’s death to a tycoon who wanted to build a hilltop mansion. He made attractive offers to purchase and move the church carved out of the property. St. Alban’s vestry stood firm and refused to sell. So Mount Alban went back on the market and was purchased by the National Cathedral Foundation. The vestry’s refusal saved the site for the Cathedral Close. Like St. Alban’s, Bishop Satterlee declared that the cathedral would be free and open to all. James Nourse was given the honor of unveiling the Peace Cross in a great ceremony on October 23, 1898 in the presence of President William McKinley. The unbuilt cathedral held open air services. St. Alban’s allowed the cathedral clergy to vest in its robing rooms and to hold cathedral services inside the church in bad weather. In 1898 the remains of Bishop and Mrs. Claggett were reinterred in a vault by St. Alban’s altar pending their final resting place in the unbuilt cathedral. Bishop Satterlee died in 1908, and his widow thanked St. Alban’s for the help and hospitality extended to him.

George and Louisa Bratenahl made many changes and improvements early in his rectorate. The chancel, choir, and vestry room were moved forward to allow for the transepts, which doubled the seating capacity. Louisa made a personal gift of a larger organ. St. Alban’s organist and choirmaster trained a girls’ choir of students at the National Cathedral School. The girls worshipped in our north transept until Bethlehem Chapel was completed. Other students came from the St. Alban’s School for boys and the nearby Industrial Home School, a reform school for juvenile delinquents. The Bratenahls formed new volunteer organizations: the Woman’s Auxiliary, the Parish Guild, the Daughters of the King, the Girls’ Friendly Society, and the Brotherhood of St. Andrew. The parish newsletter was The Chronicle, first published in 1901. It was replaced by the web about a decade ago. St. Alban’s celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1904 with a festival service and a reception at The Highlands.

The mission at St. Columba’s grew, and Bratenahl founded new missions in the parish. St. George’s in Fort Reno, Tenleytown, was founded in 1899 to serve the African American community there. St. David’s was established south of modern Sibley Hospital in 1900. In 1911, All Soul’s was sponsored opposite the Zoo, and St. Patrick’s was founded near the Georgetown Reservoir adjacent to the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Victory.

In 1911 Bratenahl resigned and became Dean of the National Cathedral. He was succeeded by the Reverend Dr. Charles T. Warner, a vicar of the mission chapels. Known as Parson Warner because of his closeness to his growing flock, he was considered an inspiring rector and beloved personal friend. An extensive building program began in the first year of his rectorate. The Nourse Memorial Guild Hall was erected, partly funded by legacies from Mary and Rosa Nourse. Louisa Bratenahl died in 1912, and the encasement of our wooden church with stone began in her memory. Work began in 1914, was interrupted by World War I, and was completed in 1924. Satterlee Hall was built in 1928 for additional space.

Architecturally St. Alban’s is designed like an English country parish church, not a cathedral. It is correctly oriented and shaped like a cross with a bell tower and a Lych Gate at the west end. Many of its stained glass windows are designed by the London firm of James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd. of London, managed by the famous stained-glass designer James Hogan. St. Alban’s ruby and sapphire chancel windows depicting the crucified Christ with St. Mary and St. John are regarded as Hogan’s masterpieces. Other windows depict the mission saints: Alban, Columba, Patrick, George, and David. The church has long been a beautiful and dignified setting for weddings, funerals, and important services.

During Warner’s 36-year rectorate, 1912-1948, the mission churches expanded and almost all become independent parishes. All Soul’s became independent in 1913 and St. Columba’s in 1924. St. Patrick’s became independent in 1946 and St. David’s in 1949. St. George’s closed in 1929 when the African American community was forced to move away from Fort Reno to Ledroit Park. Two young parishioners became missionaries and received financial assistance from St. Alban’s. Rhea Gertrude Pumphrey served in Alaska and China. Norman Spencer Binsted became a missionary bishop of Tohoku, Japan and was ordained at St. Alban’s. In 1940 he became bishop of the Philippines, survived a Japanese concentration camp, and founded or furthered many hospitals, schools, orphanages, and churches. St. Alban’s and St. Columba’s ministered to the camp of Army Engineers on Nebraska Avenue in World War I and to the Navy personnel at Mount Vernon Seminary in World War II. Dean Bratenahl preached a sermon for the 75th anniversary service in 1929 and reminded the members of St. Alban’s that they were called to be saints. 

Between 1949 and 1969, The Reverend Dr. E. Felix Kloman was rector, except for 1952-1956, when Kloman served as Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary and was replaced by the Reverend Mr. Robert Trenbath. St. Alban’s celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1954. The post-war baby boom resulted in Church School attendance of 957 in October 1958. The Sunday School classrooms were filled to the point where Trenbath called for funds to double the size of Satterlee Hall. Funds were raised to build a new rectory dedicated to Warner. When Trenbath died suddenly in 1956 at age 42, Kloman was recalled to serve a second term as rector. He emphasized Christian education and pledges. In 1960 Norman Scribner became organist and choirmaster. St. Alban’s lent financial support to the Civil Rights Movement. Kloman retired in 1969.

St. Alban’s called Dean Robert Estill from the cathedral at Lexington, Kentucky. He served on the Book of Common Prayer Committee for Experimental Liturgies. Estill opened a child-care center on the church property in 1972. He moved on to Virginia Theological Seminary in 1973 and subsequently was elected bishop of North Carolina.

The parish called the Reverend Mr. A. Theodore Eastman from his rectorate at the Church of the Mediator in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Eastman had been a member of the staff of the Overseas Mission Society in Washington. Female seminarians were prepared by parish committees for ordination, which became possible in 1977. They included the Reverend Ms. Vienna Anderson and the Right Reverend Ms. Jane Holmes Dixon, future Suffragan bishop of Washington. Construction continued next door: the nave of the National Cathedral was dedicated in 1976. In January 1982 Eastman was elected Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Maryland.

St. Alban’s called the Reverend Dr. Francis H. Wade from West Virginia in 1983. With the leadership of the new rector and the funds from the capital drive and other gifts, a new organ was installed, and Satterlee Hall and Guild Hall were remodeled. Attendance rose, and the nursery and Sunday School classrooms were filled. For 15 years St. Alban’s sponsored Our Little Roses orphanage in our companion diocese in Honduras. St. Alban’s celebrated its 150th anniversary Easter 2004 to Easter 2005 with celebrations at Zartman House, a special service for the Nourse family who were holding a reunion at Dumbarton House, and other festivities. In mid-year Frank Wade announced his intention to retire and preached his last sermon Easter Sunday, 2005, ending his tenure of 21 years. 

Since 2005 St. Alban’s has had three rectors and two interim rectors in two decades. The Reverend Dr. Scott Benhase was called from North Carolina in 2006 and was elected bishop of Georgia in 2009. The Reverend Dr. Deborah Meister was called from New Jersey in 2011, resigned in 2016, and is presently an Associate Priest of Christ Church Cathedral, Montreal. The Reverend Dr. Geoffrey Hoare had long tenures at St. Paul’s Alexandria and All Saints’ Church, Atlanta Georgia. He became rector in 2016 and retired in 2022. The result of the shorter tenures is that much parish effort and energy are directed toward managing transition and adjusting to new spiritual leadership.

But this period has had many accomplishments. The church closed during the height of the covid pandemic and successfully reopened. At Benhase’s urging, the Endowment Fund has been replenished and has grown substantially. Satterlee Hall has been renovated to function as an office and a community center for the church and neighborhood. St. Alban’s has a superb music program. We have a Spanish-speaking congregation and offer bilingual services. Our archived parish registers and records are valuable to genealogists and historians. St. Alban’s missionary work is now described as partnership, ministry, and outreach. We remain a good neighbor of the National Cathedral and the schools. We have strong education programs. The Workers of St. Alban’s (WSA) raises funds from the Opportunity Shop and donates to outreach and service missions. Information about our parish, and the texts of our sermons, are available worldwide on the internet.

St. Alban’s still lies tightly bounded on a small partly-divided plot of land. It still stands at a busy crossroads, on a hilltop, in a mixed neighborhood, in a border region, in a national capital. It is still a free church, open to all comers. It is still a family church. With Albert (Bertie) Pearson we have called a new rector to lead us into our future.