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Father Clifford on St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

“Growing up, I thought that I would be the first secretary of state since John Quincy Adams to succeed directly to the presidency through election. Half-way through my degree at Johns Hopkins, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t like foreign languages that much and that wouldn’t have made me a very good secretary of state.

No one wants to the be the last pastor of a parish.

“In the midst of that realization, there was an incident that made me think about life and death. I found myself praying more and became more aware of God’s presence and my faith. I started thinking about spreading the gospel as opposed to spreading American influence. I started a conversation with the Jesuits and entered after two years of college. While I am a born and bred suburbanite, in my 39 years in the society, I have spent 35 of them in cities, mainly Washington.

“I have a long history with Gonzaga and this parish. My father graduated here in the 40’s, but we didn’t come here as a family. Once, I remember him pointing out the school when we drove up North Capitol to see President Kennedy in 1963. At the time, I remember it seeming like a dark and forbidding place.

“After I was ordained, I came to Washington to study and was assigned to teach here from 1984 to 1991, and again from 1996 until 1999. In 20o6, I asked to leave teaching and get into parish work. I just assumed that they would send me to rural North Carolina. Instead, they sent me back here as they needed someone, and I knew the place.

“This parish has an interesting and complicated history. It used to be the parish of NE and ran all the way to the Anacostia River. We survived the many waves of trouble in the city, including the 1968 riots. But, the parish still suffers from the period of segregation from 1922-1950 when African-Americans were not welcome. When the diocese finally desegregated in 1950, there was already a black parish three blocks away at Holy Redeemer.

“The parish had been declining with the white flight from the city in the 40’s, but the decline picked up after desegregation. There were many positive times. Father McKenna, who is a local legend, did a lot of help the parish and neighborhood in the 1960’s. Since then, the pastors have had various successes in trying to grow the parish.

“Now, we have very small boundaries, from G St. to L St from 2nd to Florida Avenue. We are 230 families mostly white families from Takoma Park, Silver Spring, and Northern Virginia. We tend to attract people looking for alternatives to their home parishes, but also get people in the neighborhood or those walking by.

“Because of the declining number of Jesuits, we are being forced to withdraw from some of our parishes.  We know that is under consideration here.  While no one ever wants to be the last Jesuit pastor, I know that we have withdrawn from many works in the past to do other ministries.  Urban society and its church life are always changing.  We still hope for changes that can grow the parish, but neither the church nor the city are museums, they are transformed and help transform each other.”

Father Thomas Clifford is the Pastor of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church.

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