Mapping Georgetown: A ‘Keeper of the Keys’ at St. John’s Episcopal


One of the “keepers of the keys” at St. John’s Episcopal Church at 3240 O Street NW in Georgetown is Al La Porta. He’s not only a treasure trove of Georgetown history and artifacts, but has been so generous with his time and talent, putting together this very special story for us. And for that we are most thankful.

St. John’s Episcopal is not only known for all the devotion and service they provide and nurture in the community, but for the annual Georgetown House Tour they sponsor, a signature event each year for the community.

Al La Porta

A retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and former Ambassador to Mongolia (1997-2000), La Porta has served as archivist of St. John’s Church since 2004. Today, La Porta’s a consultant with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command with wide-ranging experience in Southeast Asia.

La Porta: ‘We are a congregation that seeks to serve’

La Porta’s story-map. Courtesy Mapping Georgetown.

As archivist of St. John’s Episcopal Church, I have been intrigued by our parish’s role in Georgetown since the founding of our congregation in 1796. From the early days when the founders, largely businessmen, bankers and lawyers, established the church on O Street, St. John’s eclectic history has tracked with the ups and downs of greater Georgetown. Now St. John’s is examining its racial history from the pre-Civil War days into the modern era when the church sponsored a social service program during the Great Depression from proceeds of the “first in the nation” House Tour. St. John’s also supported the founding of Grace Church and a Black chapel on 33rd Street, near Volta Park. Today, St. John’s draws congregants from communities distant from Georgetown. We are a congregation that seeks to serve.

Notes from the March, 1947 House Tour Meetings

La Porta also shared with us one of the gems of his records safe-keeping, the notes from the March 28 and 29, 1947, House Tour Meetings. The introduction by Miss Crane states “Mrs. Wyckoff helped organize the first Georgetown House tour twenty years ago and has been active in arranging every annual tour since that time.”

“Mrs. Jefferson Randolph Kean, whose husband is the eldest living descendent of Thomas Jefferson, was head of one group.”

Referring to the first tour of Mrs. Wyckoff, “The first house was the old Russian Legation, now home of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Colt de Wolf, 3322 O Street, which is to be open again this year…. It became famous during the days that Baron Bodisco, Russian Minister to the country, occupied it. He entertained lavishly and on one of these occasions, at a Christmas party for his two young nephews, he saw for the first time the beautiful Harriet Beall Williams whom he fell in love with. Thus started a love story that ended in a happy marriage, although he was 63 and she was only 16.”

Since 1931, St. John’s Episcopal Church has organized and hosted the Georgetown House Tour to raise funds for ministry and outreach. From day one, the House Tour has been an important part of enabling the mission of St John’s in the greater Georgetown community, raising funds for ministry and outreach.

From the Georgetown House Tour tab on the St. John’s Episcopal Website.

Each year the Georgetown House Tour features a number of Georgetown’s most beautiful homes – read about the 2019 tour on WTOP.

The Parish Tea is held in Blake Hall at historic St. John’s Church, 3240 O St. NW. This lovely tea tradition features homemade tea sandwiches and sweets. You may walk in at any time between 1:30 pm and 4:30 pm to delight in what the parish volunteers are serving! http://www.georgetownhousetour.com

Legendary House Tour Icon, Frida Burling

Frida Burling and Sonya Bernhardt, publisher of The Georgetowner, in 2011. Georgetowner photo.

“We are thankful to the work and legacy of Frida Burling, the House Tour’s guiding light for so many years. Many of us at The Georgetowner knew her and remember her with great affection. So, that is why we at The Georgetowner feel so honored and grateful to receive the Frida Burling Service Award this year for the many years of serving Georgetown and keeping the community connected,” wrote the editors of The Georgetowner. See the article about the Frida Burling Service Award here.

From the St. John’s Episcopal Website:

In 1769, land was set aside by the Church of England on the site of the future St. John’s. In 1796, a foundation was laid for a two-story building measuring 42′ x 51′…. After years of growth followed by years of financial problems, St. John’s was closed in 1831, sold and rented as a studio for the German sculptor Ferdinand Pettrich…. In 1838, a group of young ladies from the parish raised $50 to purchase the church building and return it to sacred use. A year later, improvements were made, including a new organ, a new tower entrance and a brick wall topped with a fence on the north and west sides.

St. John’s Episcopal Church. Wikipedia.

How We Do Mission at St. John’s 

At St. John’s we focus on personal volunteer service. We have adopted a missional attitude of “being with” as opposed to “doing for.” Our hope is to be Jesus Christ in the community — through engagement, direct contact, and personal  relationship. https://stjohnsgeorgetown.org/ Since 1931, residents and visitors to D.C. have gained entrance to historic homes through the Georgetown House Tour sponsored by St. John’s Episcopal Church. More than 1,600 people typically participate in the self-guided tour each year. See this Washington Post article about the annual Georgetown House Tour.

To learn more about the Mapping Georgetown project see https://georgetowner.com/articles/2021/07/19/marilyn–butlers-vision-for-mapping-georgetown/.

To submit your Georgetown recollections to Mapping Georgetown go to www.mappinggeorgetown.com  or visit the Georgetown Public Library to pick up a physical map-story form to fill out.

Marilyn Butler can be reached at: marilyn.butler@gmail.com.

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