President and Mrs. Obama along with their daughter Sasha attended Saint John’s Church Lafayette Square, where they received Holy Communion at the Episcopal Liturgy Sunday (March 18) morning. Saint John’s is called the “Church of the Presidents” as every United States President since it was built in 1815 has attended worship there at least once during his time in the White House. The Church stands facing 16th Street, across Lafayette Square from the White House. It was built after the burning of Washington during the presidency of James Madison. Madison was a charter member of the parish and his wife Dolly, a convert from Quakerism, was baptized and confirmed here. At the time, the Madisons were not living in the White House which had been burned by the British during the War of 1812, but in Octagon House on New York Avenue in Foggy Bottom, about twice the distance from Saint John’s as the White House. When President Madison left office, he and Dolly retired to his plantation, Montpelier. Not one for quiet country life, in her widowhood Dolly returned to Washington in 1837 and lived until her death in 1849 in a home just “around the corner” on Lafayette Square from Saint John’s where she worshipped regularly.
The Madisons regularly sat in pew 28, during subsequent rennovations this pew was renumbered 58 and then later 54. President Taylor “bought” the Madison pew in perpetuity (the purchase of pews by parishoners for regular use was a custom in many churches—Catholic as well as Protestant—in the nineteenth century) for use of himself and future presidents. However it is the protocol that the President and his family, when they do attend, be seated in the first pew on the right.
At the time of John Kennedy’s tenure in the White House it was still considered forbidden for Catholics to attend Protestant services and this provided a challenge to the custom that each President visit the church at least once in his term of office. However, when the Reverend John C. Harper was installed as Rector in March 1963, President Kennedy made a courtesy call on the new rector at the beginning of the service, discreetly leaving before the service proceeded.
The Church has many connections with prominent Americans besides presidents. Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the United States Capitol, was a man of many talents and not only designed Saint John’s Church, but served as its first organist and choir-master. The 1000 pound bell in the church steeple was cast by Joseph Revere, son of Paul Revere—the metal supplied from British cannon captured in the War of 1812.
The Obamas, accompanied by Vice-President-elect Joe Biden and his family, attended services at Saint John’s before proceeding to the Capitol for their inaugurations on January 20th 2009. (Vice President Biden is a devout Catholic but today the Catholic Church does not object to Catholics attendng worship services in other Christian traditions although Catholics do not generally recieve Holy Communion except at a Catholic Eucharist.) The Obamas have been back at least twice since before this morning for services. The President attends church services only occasionally but, while he is not an Episcopalian, has attended Saint John’s more than any other church during his time in office.