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Marking 200 years

Downtown church celebrates its history

(Published May 19, 2003)


Staff Writer

If it could talk, the dark wooden pew in the front – on the right side of its sanctuary’s center aisle – would have a more than 140-year-old story to tell.

It would first probably describe how President Abraham Lincoln and his family would sit in it on Sundays and pray amid the tumult of the Civil War. And how families sought refuge in its church amid the rioting that came after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It would probably mention also that King had spoken from its sanctuary’s pulpit.

But because this pew inside New York Avenue Presbyterian Church cannot speak, its story and many others about its church – nearly as old as the District itself – can be told and celebrated only by its congregation and others in the city.

And so they were on May 11, its 200th anniversary.

"The heart of this church beats not only to the tempo of its hymns, or to its famous bells, but also to the sound of the horns of the taxis or the sounds of the buses that roll up and down in front of [it]," D.C. congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said at a noontime luncheon where more than 300 people gathered for the church’s bicentennial celebration.

Speaking in Peter Marshall Hall on the fifth floor of the church at 1313 New York Ave. NW, Norton talked about the "spiritual and civic" service the church has offered the District since it was founded in 1803.

"In that sense, this church is more than historic," Norton said. "Because the city is only 228 years old. And if you are 200 years old, it means that you were born virtually with the city itself."

Joining Norton at the luncheon was the Rev. Dr. George Docherty, who as the church’s pastor gave a sermon on Feb. 7, 1954, that many believe inspired President Dwight D. Eisenhower to propose adding the phrase "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It should be ‘One nation, indivisible, under God,’" Docherty said to the congregation that included Eisenhower. "Once ‘under God,’ then we can define what we mean by ‘liberty and justice for all.’ To omit the words ‘under God’ in the pledge of allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life."

On June 14 of that year – Flag Day – Eisenhower signed into law the bill that added the phrase.

In a telephone interview from his home in Huntington, Pa., Docherty, who from 1950 to 1975 was among the most prominent ministers to serve New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, said he was particularly proud of the role the church played in the civil rights movement.

"I like to think we were on the forefront [in dealing with] the segregation problem," Docherty said, recalling his close friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. "We had black members of the church when it wasn’t fashionable."

At the luncheon, Docherty, now 92 years old, spoke about the church and asked that he be sent an invitation to its 210th anniversary celebration, when he would be 102 years old.

The luncheon followed a 10:30 worship service led by the Rev. Rodger Joseph Gench, the church’s senior minister, and attended by about 500, according to Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, a consortium of 39 area congregations that offer citywide civic support and strive to meet various human service needs.

After the special service, Gench blessed the luncheon, spoke about the church and gave its benediction.

Aside from Lincoln and Eisenhower, numerous U.S. presidents and political leaders have worshiped at or visited the historic church, which in its 200-year history has existed at two locations and in four different buildings, according to interviews with church members and the church’s Web site.

Among the earliest high-ranking officeholders to associate with the church was John Quincy Adams, whose father, John Adams, saw the end of his term as the second U.S. president two years before the first church was established in 1803.

That year, a group of local Presbyterians formed the F Street Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The church’s first building was constructed four years later, where today the similarly historic Willard Hotel stands at 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, near the intersection of 14th and F streets NW.

The F Street church hosted various community functions and in 1824 was the location for Colombian College’s commencement exercises – the first for the college that became George Washington University’s Colombian College of Arts and Sciences. Attending the exercises was President James Monroe, members of his Cabinet and members of Congress and the Supreme Court, according to George Washington University’s Web site.

Four years prior to Colombian College’s ceremonies, in 1819, another group of Presbyterians came together to form the Second Presbyterian Church. They purchased land at 1313 New York Ave. NW – where today’s church stands – for 20 cents a square foot and built another church building.

There, John Quincy Adams – then serving as secretary of state – was a trustee. President Andrew Jackson and members of his Cabinet also worshiped there.

The two Presbyterian churches coexisted for nearly 40 years, during which time the Second Presbyterian Church began struggling financially and pushing for the two churches to merge. They did, in 1859.

That year, a new church was built on New York Avenue, starting with a relatively humble congregation of about 291 members. The church was, however, built to accommodate three times that number, a move lauded on the church’s Web site as "an act of faith and vision."

The building also took a new name: the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

One hundred forty-three years later, at the luncheon, Norton emphasized that the church has remained interwoven with the District, something she said is reflected in the name it was given in 1859.

"After all, this church was not named for some saint, or for some great biblical place, it was named for New York Avenue," Norton said emphatically to enthusiastic laughter from many at the luncheon. "This is a church that understood where it was from the moment it set its boots down in the District of Columbia."

The church built in 1859 remained there until 1950, when members thought it necessary to demolish and rebuild it. The year after, President Harry S. Truman laid the cornerstone for the current building, which is bigger than the last, with five floors and a basement.

Between 1861 and 1865, President Abraham Lincoln and his family worshiped there, renting a pew that stood second from the front and on the right side of the sanctuary’s center aisle. The Lincolns’ pew today stands in about the same place it did in the preceding church, and is one of the few furnishings that remain from the church building in which they worshiped – the second of the three Presbyterian churches that have existed on New York Avenue.

The pew would become the traditional seat for all subsequent U.S. presidents worshiping there.

About 64 years after Lincoln’s assassination – the church’s Rev. Dr. Phineas D. Gurley delivered his funeral address and took part in his burial ceremonies in Springfield, Ill. – the president’s granddaughter, Mary Harlan Lincoln, donated the Lincoln Memorial Tower and belfry in memory of her husband, Robert Todd Lincoln.

The four brass bells, known by many as "the Lincoln Chimes," collectively weigh nearly 4,000 pounds and have chimed on the quarter-hour since they were added to the church in 1929 along with a four-sided clock.

Church members named a chapel, a parlor and a stained glass window in Lincoln’s honor. The chapel now is used for weddings, baptisms and other occasions, and the parlor most notably is home to the "Emancipation Document," upon which the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was based.

The stained glass window honoring Lincoln is one of 19 adorning the church’s walls, all designed by Docherty. Subjects of the windows on the church’s lower level include religious themes, like The Last Supper and The Nativity, while those on the upper level depict scenes illustrating such subjects as education and science.

Other prominent political and religious figures who have worked, worshiped or visited the church include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who several times spoke at the church to rally Vietnam War opponents.

Also celebrated was the work of the Rev. Peter Marshall, whose tenure as the church’s minister included the years of World War II and saw some of the largest numbers of people lobbying for membership. Scenes from this time – which included scores of people lining up outside the church in hopes of finding sanctuary within – are documented in Marshall’s biography, "A Man Called Peter," which in 1955 was made into a film.

The church in 1968 was home to the offices of the Poor People’s Campaign, which King said would march that year in the District demanding "employment of all able-bodied, a living income for the disabled, and an end to housing discrimination," according to records from Louisiana State University’s library.

Given its history, the church will stay on New York Avenue if church members can help it, said Leonora Marquis, a longtime church member who has volunteered much of her time to accentuating the church’s influence in the city.

"The church has made a commitment to stay on New York Avenue and be a force in the city for social change," Marquis said. "We’ve kept close to our roots. It’s a very strong congregation."

Docherty agreed that the church has been a major force in not only religious but also civic life in the District.

"Being two blocks from the White House," Docherty said, "it’s been a great influence on the city."

Marquis and other members underscored that their church is "inclusive" in that people from virtually all walks of life can spend time there for enjoyment or help with problems. One does not have to be a member to go there.

The church today, as it has for years, houses a variety of programs and organizations, including the Downtown Cluster of Congregations and the Community Club, a tutoring and mentoring club that began in 1962 and has included 2,600 volunteers and 1,800 students.

About 150 students from various city schools still meet every Wednesday evening at the church as part of the club, some seeking academic help, others looking for companionship.

Other outreach programs include regular Alcoholics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous meetings and the New York Avenue Meals-on-Wheels Program, whose members deliver food to city shelters.

The McClendon Center Nutrition and Socialization Programs endeavor to assist the homeless and others in need through counseling and various forms of therapy, including art therapy and women’s group sessions.

The center was named for Associate Pastor Jack McClendon, who along with Docherty and his wife marched in Selma, Ala., in 1965, one of many significant happenings amid the civil rights movement in the South.

The congregation is currently composed of about 750 members, said Tom Dowdell, who handles public relations for the church.

Dowdell also touted the church’s inclusiveness and civic involvement, adding that its sanctuary choir, which began in 1939, remains a significant part of the church’s services, performing "classical as well as contemporary anthems."

Directed by Stanley Engebretson, the choir on May 11 performed "Peace in Our World," an anthem commissioned specifically for the anniversary.

Tours of the church building are held after each Sunday worship service and can be arranged by calling the church office at (202) 393-3700.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator