Brief History of The Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church
In January of 1864, several ladies saw in The Presbyterian Magazine, an article written by the Reverend John Chester about a church he had started under a tree in Bustleton, N.J. with another pastor. Since they were tired of walking or riding in a carriage through muddy or dusty streets to get to the closest Presbyterian Church, they wrote to him and asked if – since God had used him to build a “Church under a tree”, He might also use him to build a Church on a hill. The young pastor saw this as a call from God and immediately came to DC, met with a few interested persons and preached a sermon. Finding the situation favorable, he then returned to NJ, resigned his charge, moved his young family to Washington, and the Capitol Hill Presbyterian church was organized by the Presbytery of the Potomac on April 11, 1864 with 34 members.
The congregation soon outgrew the various temporary quarters (which included the Capitol Building itself), and by 1868 it was obvious that a large edifice needed to be built to house the church. At this time the assets of the Metropolitan Church, a corporation formed for the purpose of establishing a National Presbyterian Church in DC (but which did not exist in fact as a congregation) were turned over to Dr. Chester’s Capitol Hill Church with the provision that the plans be enlarged and the name changed to Metropolitan Presbyterian Church. This was done and the work started, but the building designed by Architect Emil Sophus Friedrich had only reached the first floor when the contractor failed. This caused much hardship and consternation among the members but the building was finally completed in 1872. The dedication service was attended by President Ulysses S. Grant. Money was very tight, however, and consequently the iron spire which was to top the tower was not built and the tower was completed as it appears today. The cost would have been approximately $1500.
The congregation grew steadily and by 1892 more room was needed for the Sunday School Dept, so a small building was built next to the church. The building is often called the “Chapel” today.
The church continued to thrive into the 20th century, having about 900 members in the first decade. During the forties, the Pastor, Dr. Lowery Fendrich, started the “ Institute of Applied Religion and Psychology” and radio broadcasts were made from the church. This period was marked by some dissension in the congregation, and despite efforts by the Session and the Board of Trustees to keep Dr. Fendrich, he left in April, 1944 to accept a call to Cincinnati.
After the Second World War, many young families moved to the suburbs and membership declined in most city churches. In 1955 it was decided to merge with Eastern Presbyterian at 6th and MD Ave NE. The name chosen for the new church was The Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.
During the 1970s, a proposal was made to tear down the church building and build townhouses across the front. Worship services would be held in the chapel. This was ultimately defeated, but the congregation looked at new ways to support the building. The Washington Seminar Center grew out of this.
During a storm on Friday, April 13, 1984, two days before Palm Sunday, lightning struck a window frame and started a fire in the attic. A tragedy was averted when Don Huff, a homeless man, who had a relationship with the church, saw the fire as he was walking by and called the fire department. His quick action probably saved the building. However, the Sanctuary was badly damaged by water and for a year the congregation worshiped in the Fellowship Hall. During this time some remodeling was done to the Sanctuary.
Though the church is now 150 years old, it does not rest on its laurels, but constantly seeks ways to relate to the community. A few of the current programs include Soup Kitchen Sunday, Food Pantry Sunday, the Easter dress project with dresses given to little girls in the homeless program of the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, and mission projects both at home and out of the country. Various community groups use the building on a regular basis. And now we are looking forward to the next 150 years.