White agreed to underwrite the down payment for a lot on which to build the church using money from St. Matthews, but suggested fundraising efforts would be needed to continue the church’s construction.
The committee came up with a potentially winning idea: why not hold a massive Fourth of July fundraising picnic on the White House lawn?
Coakley appears to have been chosen as the leader and spokesman for the group, and by most accounts seems to be the one who met personally with Lincoln to ask for the use of the White House grounds for a fundraiser picnic to raise money for the new church.
Even at the height of the Civil War, personal access to the President was much simpler than it is today. Coakley simply made an appointment to meet Lincoln and was welcomed into the White House on June 27, 1864.
Though not himself a Catholic, Lincoln was evidently supportive of helping black Catholics in DC build their own place to worship. He agreed at once, and told Coakley to go to General Benjamin French’s office to tell him that he had given permission for the event.
French was a prominent Mason, so Coakley feared that he would not be keen to grant permission for an unusual event organized by black Catholics.
Nevertheless, records show that General Benjamin French issued a permit for the use of the White House lawn on June 30, 1864, and, after Coakley returned to the White House to seek the president out once again, Lincoln signed it.
Here’s where the historical record gets slightly fuzzier.
It remains unclear whether Lincoln himself actually attended the event. A Washington Post article from the 1980s proclaims that the festival was “held” by President and Mrs. Lincoln, “who strongly supported a church for black Catholics in the nation's capital.”
MacGregor wrote that “President Lincoln and members of his cabinet likely made a brief appearance,” it is not officially recorded— at least in Lincoln’s writings— whether he was actually there or not.
(Story continues below)
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Regardless, the event was a success.
An estimated 1,500 parishioners from at least six DC-area parishes attended, and the picnic raised over $1,200 a very large sum at the time.
With the funds in hand, work began on the De Porres Chapel and school, which opened in 1866 on Fifteenth Street.
MacGregor says it took a while for the chapel to attract a congregation, because despite harsh treatment at their home parishes, many black Catholics were still attached to their congregations.
Nevertheless, black Catholics at various parishes around DC remained frustrated by discrimination, and with the support of an Italian priest named Father Felix Barotti, a black Catholic parish at last came to fruition.
The original St. Augustine’s Church, which replaced the De Porres chapel in 1876, sat on the site of what eventually became the headquarters of the Washington Post.