08 Oct 2018


Lost Capitol Hill: Christ Church, Redux

As per my usual habit, today’s piece is a rerun.

Christ Church, located today 620 G Street, SE, was built in 1807 and consecrated in 1809, is the oldest church in Washington DC. It was not, however, the first building used by this congregation. That honor goes to a small wooden structure located nearby.

Christ Church was created by an act of the Maryland legislature. They had been petitioned by residents of Washington and Georgetown in 1794 to be allowed to create a new parish under the name ‘Washington.’ This petition was granted in 1795, and a vestry was elected on May 25 of that year. Immediately thereafter, a rector – one Reverend George Ralph – was selected and the new church went about finding a place to worship.

How this new place of worship came to be is an interesting, and still unresolved, question. While the official history of Christ Church avers that a tobacco barn on the land of Charles Carroll was converted into a church, an article from 1888 published in the Church Review and entitled “The Church in Washington, illustrated” states that a building was specifically built for the purpose, with land donated by James Greenleaf.

Greenleaf (pictured) is one of the more colorful figures in early Washington, usually described as a speculator, though quite possibly ‘con man’ would fit better. Greenleaf had bought 3,000 lots in Washington in 1793 at very advantageous terms, by offering to lend the Commissioners $2,660 a month as well as building 10 brick buildings a year. He may have been helped in this by George Washington, who believed that Greenleaf would buy up Washington’s holdings around Great Falls. By the time he is to have given the land to Washington Parish, Greenleaf’s house of cards had collapsed, and he was broke.

Either way, Washington Parish had, by 1795, a small house of worship on New Jersey Avenue, SE, near D Street, SE.

The original church, in a picture taken from the official history of the church.

In spite of this rocky beginning, there is no doubt that the church soon became an important role in the city. George Washington worshiped there occasionally, and Thomas Jefferson was a regular while president. According to church records, he donated $50 a year for several years.

Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for the church to outgrow its humble beginnings, and in 1806, the church gladly accepted the offer by William Prout, a member of the church and a large landowner in what became the District, of two lots. The cornerstone was laid that year, and the church was finished less than a year later, as per a proviso in Prout’s offer.

Two years later, the church was consecrated and has continued to operate since then. As to what happened to the original building, it was torn down, and nothing but a parking lot marks the original site of this important piece of Capitol Hill history.

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