Painted images of the 12 apostles along the arched ceiling of St. Francis Borgia Church in Downtown Washington are among Father Joe Wormek’s favorite details inside this historic structure. Installed in 1905, the images don’t have names to identify who is who. Rather, they are recognized by what each one is holding in his hands.
“Peter has the keys. Paul has the sword. Andrew has an X cross . . . ,” said Father Joe, pastor at St. Francis Borgia since 2014.
Not included among the 12 is Judas, who removed himself from the group by betraying Jesus. According to the Bible’s “Acts of the Apostles,” the 11 remaining drew names to find a replacement. They selected Matthias, but he’s not featured along the ceiling at SFB either.
“Paul is there,” said Father Joe. “Paul was called by Jesus himself.”
The images of the apostles are one of the most beloved features of SFB church by parishioners. Earlier this year when the canvas on which the images are painted began peeling away from the walls, extensive care was taken to make repairs.
“It’s a plaster ceiling with a wall covering that has been painted over it,” Father Joe explained. “It has been up for 30 years and the duration is usually 20, so we’re talking about replacing it . . . but the apostles will remain.”
The apostles were not an original feature of this SFB church, the third in the parish’s 185-year history. Not much of the interior is, since the building dates back 150 years. But the exterior remains largely the same as it was on Easter Monday, April 6, 1869, when it was blessed and dedicated.
SFB parishioners will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of this church with a special dinner Saturday, June 8, following the 4:30 p.m. Mass. Archbishop Robert Carlson will be in attendance.
Third Church in Less Than 30 Years
Father Martin Seisl, SJ, was pastor of SFB in 1866 when the parish took on construction of a new church, having outgrown its two previous churches.
The first SFB church was a log cabin located where the church cemetery at 14th and Jefferson streets is today. The second was a brick structure, 36 feet wide by 70 feet long, built in 1846 just west of the current church.
The growth of the Borgia parish forced the parish to begin building its third church in 1866, said Father Joe. They had wanted to start sooner, but the Civil War prevented that.
According to a church history compiled by Karen Marquart in the booklet, “St. Francis Borgia Parish, A Dream by the River,” 650,700 bricks were used at a cost of $4,717 to build the church. Labor costs to the bricklayers was $3,811.
When the church was completed in 1869, it was the Rev. Provincial Fred Coosemans who gave the blessing. He was assisted by the Rev. Father Foller and the Rev. Father William Faeber. The Rev. Father Haza sang the High Mass.
The high altar was built and put up by Washington’s own Schwarzer and Co. The Communion rail was made by Trentmann and Co., and an iron enclosure around the Baptismal font was made by A. Jasper.
The church’s three bells, which were cast in 1869, 1876 and 1887, are still hanging in the 12- by 12-foot bell tower. The bells measure 5, 4 and 3 feet in diameter, and together weigh several tons.
However, the bells no longer swing to make their familiar ringing sound, as the swinging was shaking the tower too much. Several years ago electronic hammers were placed on the bells to hit the bells and create the ringing sound.
A tornado ripped into the roof and steeple of the church on July 9, 1910. The repairs were quick and the remaining turrets on the facade were removed.
Renovations Began in Early 1900s
Improvements and modifications to the church interior began after Father Alphonse Bergener, O.F.M., arrived in 1902. These included frescoing of the church by George Hoepfinger of Chicago, Ill., pictorial stained-glass windows, Stations of the Cross, a new pulpit and altars, confessional and Communion railing, a steam heating system and electric lights.
“Before then, the pulpit was located among the pews on the right side, and there were no stained-glass windows,” Father Joe pointed out.
The stained-glass windows each tell a story. On the baptismal font side (right side if facing the altar), from the front of church to the back, these include the Annunciation; the birth of Jesus; the Holy Family in Nazareth; the Assumption; the Coronation of Mary as queen and mother; and the Face of Mary. On the other side (piano side), from front to back, the windows depict the Presentation of Mary; Jesus lost in the temple and teaching; the Ascension; and the Face of Jesus.
In the choir loft, the stained-glass window above the pipe organ, the rose window depicts St. Cecilia.
According to a parish bulletin from July 1943, kneeler cushions were installed the week of July 13. In March 1949, the bulletin outlined how the clock in the bell tower was sent off to Cincinnati where it was equipped to operate electronically. That same bulletin also noted that the church bells were strengthened with new lumber and steel.
Old photos show how ornate the church interior used to be, even as late as the 1930s and 40s.
In the late 1950s, the interior of the church was completely redecorated. The ornately decorated wooden altars were replaced by marble ones and wood paneling was installed throughout the church. The dome of the sanctuary portrayed the symbol of God the Father and “Seat of Wisdom.”
Those changes coincided with the Second Vatican Council which convened in 1959 and brought major changes to the Mass, said Father Joe.
“The altar was turned around, and Mass went from Latin to English,” he remarked. “There were a lot of changes then. People were used to going to church and watching, and now they were expected to participate.”
The next round of major interior renovations and redecorating came in the mid-1980s. Parishioners supported the effort, pledging more than $500,000 to complete the work, which began in 1986.
Air conditioning was added to the church in 1993. The following year, the steeple was renovated and lighting was installed. In 1995, the choir area was redesigned to be more accommodating to choir members, the director and other musicians.
Three years ago, the four clock faces in the bell tower, each of which measures about 8 feet across, were refurbished, and the wood hands, which are 4 and 3 feet apiece, were replaced with aluminum hands manufactured by Bleckman Machine Company, Washington.
Angels, Historical Statues
Along with the images of the apostles, Father Joe said another favorite detail of the decór is the abundance of angels. There are 20 or more seen in the sanctuary dome, the stained glass windows, above the door at the entrance to the church and elsewhere.
He also appreciates the statues displayed in the church have special meaning to the parish history. The statues of St. Francis Borgia and St. Francis of Assisi represent the two religious orders that served the parish over the years, and there also is a small statue hanging on the wall just inside the center doors to the church of St. Rose Philippine Duschene, who is buried in St. Charles and who visited this parish in 1841.
It’s natural to be impressed that over the last 150 years, this third SFB church has survived natural disasters, but Father Joe said what is equally as impressive to him is how the church has survived the growth of the parish. Back in 1869 when the church was completed, the parish had maybe 200 families, and the church was built to seat 600 people, so it was built with growth in mind.
Today the parish has more than 1,200 families. To accommodate that number, there are four Masses held each weekend, one on Saturday evening at 4:30 p.m. and three on Sunday mornings at 7, 9 and 11 a.m.
The parish has just two priests.
St. Francis Borgia Church will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its current church building with a special dinner in the courtyard of Jesuit Hall Saturday, June 8, beginning around 5:30 p.m. following the 4:30 p.m. Mass, which will be led by Archbishop Robert Carlson.
The menu will include a variety of food provided by SFB members who have restaurants and food businesses. The deadline to register for the meal has passed.
The evening also will include music from Loehnig German Band and kids activities.
The parishioners — some of whom are descendants of the original 12 families who founded SFB — are excited to celebrate this milestone in Borgia’s history, said Father Joe. He is too.
“Think about all the sacraments people have recevied here — baptisms, First Communions, marriages, people being buried from here . . . We are celebrating a lot of history, a lot of faith,” he said. “We’re just a small part of it, and we’re just trying to be thankful to the Lord for the blessings he has bestowed on this community and this church.”