St. Paul’s was founded in 1712 after the Rev. John Frasier, rector of St. John’s, Broad Creek, was invited to preach on one Sunday each month in the area that is now Rock Creek Parish in the Petworth neighborhood in the District of Columbia. A vestry for the new parish was formed in May 1712 and the minutes of that vestry are still in the parish records.
At a meeting of the vestry in September 1719, Colonel John Bradford pledged 100 acres of land to serve as a glebe for the parish. A glebe was a farm from which the rector of a parish was to make his living. At the same meeting, other members pledged 4,350 pounds of tobacco and 45 pounds sterling for the support of the church. Building a wooden church began immediately and, in 1721, a brick church was built on the site of the present building.
In 1726, the Colonial Assembly granted parish status to the church. The parish grew and flourished, and in 1775 a handsome, classical brick church was completed. The first school, in what is now the District of Columbia, was formed by the parish. In 1776, the rector—the Rev. Alexander Williamson— chose to remain loyal to the king (as did a majority of Anglican clergy) and he returned to England.
In 1810, St. Paul’s was largely rebuilt as a result of the efforts of the rector of St. John’s, Georgetown, and a local lawyer, Frances Scott Key. Key would later write the Star Spangled Banner, the song that became our national anthem, and was one of the founders of the Virginia Theological Seminary.
In the 1830s, the rector and vestry decided to sell off parts of the glebe to form a cemetery in what was then a relatively rural part of the District of Columbia. Rock Creek Cemetery in St. Paul’s Churchyard was established by an act of Congress in 1840. The church grew quickly during the rectorship of the Rev. Dr. James Buck, which began in 1852. When the Diocese of Washington was formed, in 1896, St. Paul’s was one of its major parishes.
The church building has been damaged several times by fire during its long history. A major restoration took place after the worst fire, in 1921, resulting in the current building, with its famed acoustics. The present stained glass windows, depicting the history of the Episcopal Church in America, were installed in the years following the restoration.
Today, St. Paul’s continues to be a vital presence in the local community, as well as in the wider community of the nation’s capital. In 2012, the parish celebrated its 300th anniversary.