The 1954 Merger of Metropolitan and Eastern Congregations

Go to The Merger and Barbara Beach for a first person account!

Here are two Churches, close neighbors, born within 11 years of each other (one in 1864 and the other in 1875), starting out as small congregations and becoming within a very short time prominent and influential. Their prosperous periods lasted about 50 years and were followed by a gradual decline in strength and numbers. The populations in their neighborhoods did not decline and neither Church was torn by factional disputes. So what caused the decline in strength of these two congregations?

Some say that these two Churches were built to serve a “horse and buggy” age. In the early years, East Capitol Street was a favorite promenade on Sunday afternoons and on pleasant summer evenings. Entire families would stroll in leisure from the Capitol to Lincoln Park. Many householders had their own horses and rigs and might be seen driving slowly by. The neighborhood on the whole was a good place to live. Life was pleasant and unhurried with little to distract the placid ways of the people.  Social life centered around the churches and in the family circles.  In summary, Capitol Hill was one of the best residential districts in the city.

It was during these early years and into the first decades of the 20th Century that the two Churches prospered. In the meantime mass public transportation, improved streets, civic improvements opened up new residential areas and with the advent of the automobile, a decided change took place. Many Capitol Hill families moved to the newer districts and, as they left, their large homes were converted into rooming houses, tourist homes, and apartments. The newer residents of the Hill were not deeply rooted in Washington and were constantly on the move. The churches attracted many of these shifting families, but it was difficult to keep track of a constantly shifting population. They came and went – sometimes staying for a few years and then suddenly disappearing. By 1930-35 the trend began to assume a defined pattern and the congregations experienced a slow decline in attendance and membership.

Following the Second World War, a great expansion in the surrounding suburban districts attracted still more people from the city. Those who remained in the congregations were mostly of the older generations. There was also the change in the racial makeup of the neighborhoods and the difficulty of the congregations relating to this change. Then round 1950 interest was aroused to “restore” the old dilapidated homes on the Hill and change began again.

The problem of a changing neighborhood and its effect on the two Presbyterian Churches on the Hill, while a serious one, does not entirely answer the question as to why the once strong congregations should decline so much that in the end a merger was needed.Another problem was that a mid-City Church could no longer be limited to parish limits and in both Presbyterian Churches little effort was made to attract people outside the parish confines. (The only exception was the period when Rev. Fendrich was the Pastor of Metropolitan but the changes he brought did not last and they ended when he left.)

Prior to 1951 there were informal discussions about the problems. However, in 1951 the Session of Eastern Presbyterian Church received a written request for a study to determine the feasibility of Eastern merging with Eckington Presbyterian and/or Metropolitan Presbyterian; and Eastern’s Session began a formal study. From this time on, the movement to merge the two congregations gathered force. Both Sessions became convinced that some drastic action was needed to correct the downward trend of the two congregations. On May 11, 1952 both congregations held meetings and appointed a joint committee to address the problems of both churches in relation to the changing community. The studies resulted in a choice: move to a new location or merge and form one congregation on Capitol Hill. The first choice was rejected and the second choice presented a dilemma – If they were to merge and remain on Capitol Hill, which Church building would they retain and which would they sell?  Each group on the committee, quite understandably, was desirous of retaining their facility and disposing of the other.

The Joint Committee could not resolve this question and sought help from Presbytery.The Trustees of Presbytery undertook a review and recommended the following:  the two churches merge to form one Church and name a neutral tribunal to arbitrate the question as to which building to retain and which to sell. The sale’s funds would be used to improve the retained building and any surplus would be used for general church expansion by Presbytery. The Metropolitan Congregation voted to approve the report but the Eastern Congregation questioned the last provision of the report. The Trustees modified the proposal to state that the funds from a sale would be used for the improvement of the retained building and to retire any debts of the two congregations. If there were any excess funds after this they would then go to Presbytery. The modified report also recommended a joint committee on Merger composed of five members from each congregation. This recommendation was approved by the Eastern Congregation but initially rejected by the Metropolitan Congregation. However, after reflection the Session of the Metropolitan Congregation held another congregational meeting and by a vote of 71 to 14 the congregation decided to reopen the question. The question was again put to the two congregations on June 20, 1954 and both congregations passed the motion.

The remaining question was the most difficult:  which of the two buildings would become the home of the newly named “Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church.” No matter the final decision, there would be many disappointed individuals and heartache. The new committee for the combined congregations now asked Presbytery to appoint the tribunal to decide the issue. The Presbytery Tribunal made a personal survey of each building, its limitations, its possibilities, the neighborhood and all other concerns; and on October 13, 1954recommended that the congregation retain the Metropolitan building because it had substantially more floor space and sell the Eastern‘s Church building.

The Eastern members had a strong personal attachment to their lovely building and the report was a disappointment to them. But they had taken a calculated risk when they agreed to the venture and to their credit took the decision in stride and gave up their building. The first union meeting of the congregations was a communion service on January 2, 1955. The sanctuary of the new congregation was made more welcoming to the Eastern members by including in the remodeled sanctuary the chancel furniture from the Eastern Church building including the communion table, baptismal font, and six large ceiling lights. 

The congregations were now well acquainted with each other and they met as friends in their new Christian venture. To their credit they had rejected the easy solution of deserting the city and chose instead the challenge of the more difficult field of endeavor.