On July 4, 1864 Abraham Lincoln had much to pre-occupy his mind. Grant’s drive on Richmond had bogged down into a stalemated siege to the south of Richmond around the city of Petersburg. Grant, due to the appalling Union casualties of the campaign, was routinely denounced as a butcher in Northern newspapers, a charge echoed privately by Mary Todd Lincoln. On June 27 Sherman had been bloodily repulsed at Kennesaw Mountain, and his campaign against Atlanta appeared to be very much in doubt. Lincoln suspected that he would not be re-elected and that the Union might very well lose the war. So what did he do on July 4? He, along with Mrs. Lincoln and most of his cabinet, attended a fundraiser held on the White House lawn to build a Catholic church!
In June of 1864, a group of black men, residents of Washington, knocked on the White House door and asked to present a petition to President Lincoln. In those simpler times they were ushered in after a short wait to see Mr Lincoln. Their spokesman, Gabriel Coakley, told the President that they were Catholics and that they wished to obtain permission to hold a lawn party on the White House lawn in order to build a Catholic church in Washington to serve the black Catholic population in the capital. Lincoln agreed immediately and told them to go to see General French, the commissioner of public buildings, and to tell him that he had given his permission for the function. A permit was issued by General French on June 30, 1864. It required the signature of the President, and Gabriel Coakley waited outside a cabinet meeting for several hours until the President came out. Lincoln saw him, was advised that the permit needed his signature, signed it, and told Coakley that he hoped the event would be a success.
Lincoln helped ensure the event was a success on July 4, by attending. The event raised over $1,000.00, a very large sum at a time when a private soldier earned $14.00 per month. With the funds the church was constructed, the Blessed Martin De Porres Chapel, with the foundations hand dug by parishioners. The church quickly attracted a large number of black catholics, but also a sizable number of white catholics. In 1876 the church was replaced by Saint Augustine church. I am pleased to report that the Saint Augustine parish is still going strong.
May God in His mercy again send us a President like Abraham Lincoln, ever a friend of religious liberties and of the Catholic Church!