The Immaculate Conception parish evolved from the rapid growth of the first Catholic Church in Washington, St. Patrick’s, which was established in 1794. The early parishioners were a mixture of Catholics who were already settled in the region and newly immigrating Irish Catholics. An 1810 Congressional charter provided for construction of a system of turnpikes from Washington City to the District line and 7th Street was an important early transportation corridor resulting from this charter.
With the increase in population of the City of Washington following the Civil War, people began to migrate into the area north of Massachusetts Avenue and up the 7th Street corridor. St. Patrick’s was becoming overburdened by the increasing congregational membership in its limited facilities while, at the same time, those members who had moved found traveling too difficult. Thus began the growth of four additional churches within the parish boundaries of St. Patrick’s. The first “mission” church to be built in this newly developing area of the city and the northern limits of the parish, Immaculate Conception Church, would be the “oldest” daughter of St. Patrick’s Church. St. Matthew’s, St. Aloysius and St. Mary’s would follow.
The land, the deed given by William Jones, for the Immaculate Conception Church and School cost $16,000 with $8,000 being paid up front. Father J. Walter, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, began the project in the summer of 1864. The cornerstone was laid on Sunday, October 30, 1864 and work on the 50′ x 75′ structure was completed by the middle of summer in 1865. On July 2, the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin, the Most Reverend Martin J. Spalding, Archbishop of Baltimore, dedicated the new church assisted by Father Walter and Rev P. F. McCarthy of St. Patrick’s.
The new church was actually constructed to serve as both church and school. It was located on N Street next to a vacant corner lot at 8th and N Streets and was the first structure to be built in the area. It is the site of the present Immaculate Conception School building, which was built in 1908. As the number of parishioners rapidly increased to about 2,000 (the St. Patrick’s parish extended to the Brightwood area), the church/school structure soon became too small.
William H. Thumbert and Charles Columbus donated land to the young church between 1865 and 1868. According to tax assessments, Father McCarthy donated land to the church and a rectory was built between 1874 and 1888. It has served since as the residence of the parish priests.
Under the guidance of Father McCarthy, who became Immaculate Conception’s first pastor in 1866, construction of the new church began when the cornerstone was laid on November 13, 1870. The actual work began the following spring with an estimated cost of $75,000. The church was designed to measure 67′ wide and 127′ long and to feature a 175′ tower. Three altars were designed to face 182 pews to accommodate 1,000 worshipers. By the time of its completion, the building was somewhat smaller and accommodated only 176 pews. The tower was left unfinished and the final cost was somewhere between $51,000 and $60,000.
According to church documents, Messrs. Dant and Barry were responsible for laying the brick walls, while James Lewis prepared the finished, press brick front facade. Joseph Beckert provided the plastering by Mullan & Son of Baltimore for a cost of $1,800 and the pews were made in Richmond, Indiana for $15 each.
A procession of 1,000 people walked to Immaculate Conception to meet another 8,000 waiting there to mark the laying of the cornerstone. In a time capsule inserted in the cavity of the cornerstone was placed Catholic and secular newspapers of the day, specimens of United States currency, and a parchment stating that the cornerstone was laid November 13, 1870. Upon the new church’s dedication in 1874, the original church/school building officially became the school/parish hall.
Because the building of churches was a “pay-as-you-go” affair with each parish being responsible for raising funds for its own construction projects, the complete construction of the Immaculate Conception church would eventually take another 66 years. The church’s bell was consecrated in 1885. The tower was completed in 1900 and the exterior surface features were completed in 1936.
Built by Edward Clements, Immaculate Conception was designed in a restrained Gothic Revival style, characterized by its tall central tower and pointed arch lancet windows. The brick church shares some similarities to some of the larger mid-19th century houses of worship created by James Renwick and Richard Upjohn.
The principal facade, facing N Street is divided into three distinct bays. The central entry, leading into a narthex, and then to the central nave, is set within a tall, double-height Gothic arch with a series of deep brick springing from a cluster of brick piers. A Gothic-arched transom light surmounts the double wood doors, while a tri-partite lancet window with tracery fills in the arched space above. To either side of the central entry and separated by brick buttresses are paired wooden entry doors, recessed into a broken-arched opening with brick label molding. Above these entries are two-part lancet windows, set within a steeply pitched Gothic arched opening. All three of these arches are decorated with brick label moldings. The three-story brick tower, with pointed-arch openings on all elevations, rises above the center bay of the facade, while a tall, brick parapet wall with pointed-arch blind arcading culminates above the side bays.
The church’s interior is the result of several remodelings, but contains original delicate columns, wood paneling and ceiling vaults. The balcony level, in the rear of the church contains a Steere and Turner Tracker Organ, which was built in 1879 according to the Organ Historical Society. The altar is set upon a raised marble platform and is constructed of white Italian marble and is designed in a high Gothic style. The right chancel, originally a smaller altar area, now holds the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes. This grotto was constructed of Italian and African marble in 1930 by Yicken Yon Port Totten, a Washington Sculptress, and was donated by Anna Marie Hagan.
Franz Kaspar Huibrecht Vinck (1827-1903), a famous Belgian artist of the late 19th Century, was commissioned to paint the Stations of the Cross.
For the 75th anniversary of the Immaculate Conception church, Monsignor John Cartwright had the church refurbished. The ceiling was painted with a blue and gold design, and new wrought iron Gothic-style lights were added. An altar of Italian and African marble with mosaic inserts was also installed in the Grotto area for the celebration, which took place in November 1940 due to the summer heat.
The first evening Mass took place in 1954 with the permission of the Archbishop of Washington, the Most Reverend Patrick A. O’Boyle.
The interior of the church was renovated under the direction of the Rambusch Decorating Company of New York between 1962 and 1963 with the work being supervised by architects, Donald S. Johnson and Harold L. Boutin.
The church school, rectory and convent were placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior in September of 2003.