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1985 by Catherine Millard

“Church of the Presidents” 
(St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square)

Across from the White House on “H” Street, N.W., stands St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square. Designed in the Greek Revival style by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the architects of the Capitol and foremost architect of his time, this regal little church with its two gilded domes shining in the sun, began its long career of worship services on October 27, 1816. Since its inception, every President of the United States has worshipped the Lord here, some on a more regular basis than others. President Chester Arthur met his wife in this setting. She was a member of the church, and sang in its choir. Here they were married on October 25, 1859, by the Reverend Dr. Pyne, Rector of St. John’s. After her death, President Arthur gave a beautiful stained glass window entitled “The Resurrection Window” to the church, in loving memory of his wife, Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur. It faces Lafayette Square and the White House north windows.

Everything within St. John’s extols the beauty and glory of God, from its graceful ceilings above, to the symbolic windows which capture great truths of our Christian faith. Above the main altar, a stained glass window shows Christ and his apostles partaking in their last supper together before His crucifixion and triumphant resurrection from the dead. It was designed by Madame Veuve Lorin, curator of stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral, France.

St. John’s Orphanage

Toward the close of the Civil War, the church Orphanage Association of St. John’s Parish sprang up through the loving efforts of St. John’s Guild. A ruling of the Guild advised young women that: “One hour every day shall be devoted to the Lord…”

The original name of the orphanage was “St. John’s Hospital for Children.” It began with a small rented house on Pennsylvania Avenue, in November 1870. The ten beds were promptly filled. A group of five sisters, knows as the “Sisterhood of St. John,” soon came into being. Among these, was Sarah Williams Huntington, affectionately known as “Sister Sarah,” who welcomed the poor, sad, rejected and unwanted with open arms. Sister Sarah’s mode of operation was “simple living and high thinking.”

Records of the early years of this magnificent work of God are non-existent, Sister Sarah having dispensed with “her” children’s histories for fear that they would jeopardize otherwise promising futures.

A letter and accompanying photograph of the orphans, however, was presented to the President of the Ladies Guild by Mr. Irving M. Grey, Alumnus of the orphanage, in 1942. He states that many of the children “made good” in life, one of the boys becoming the Rector of a church in North Carolina. “For this,” continues the letter, “so many of us are mighty thankful.”

The following excerpted report by Sister Sarah gives an understanding of why she was so beloved, and deeply mourned at her death in 1917:

We might mention here another case, a most unpromising little waif, brought many years ago by the police, whom we feared to receive lest she should do more harm than receive good. The mother in jail, the most degraded of her class, what could be hoped for the child? But she seemed gradually to forget her old habits, became industrious and useful. At a suitable age she left us for a position which she filled most acceptably, spending her holidays at the orphanage; now the happy wife of an estimable farmer in her own comfortable home. We shudder to think where the little elf might have drifted, had no one held out to her a helping hand.

Now at a different location in our nation’s capital, and under different auspices, this ministry begun by the “Church of the Presidents” continues its work among children.

(Excerpted from, God’s Signature over the Nation’s Capital, 1985 by Catherine Millard.)

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