- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

The bell at Georgetown Presbyterian Church in Northwest tolled all day when the country’s first president, George Washington, died of a throat infection more than 200 years ago.

Today, that bell will ring again, as the oldest church in the Washington area with an unbroken ministry celebrates its 225th anniversary. The church will host a daylong ceremony highlighting its ongoing involvement in the D.C. community and its rich historical tradition.

“The congregation has served the community literally for over 200 years,” said the Rev. Richard Sheffield, who will be installed today as the church’s 19th senior pastor. “It’s very much a part of the history of the District.”

Stephen Bloomer Balch, a Revolutionary War soldier, established the church — then known as the Bridge Street Church and thought to be the first Presbyterian church in the District — in 1780. In 1782, the congregation moved into its first permanent building at what is now M and 30th streets in Northwest.

Thomas Jefferson contributed $75 to enlarge the church in 1793, and as president in 1806 signed a congressional charter allowing the church to operate as a business.

After several other renovations — including one in 1821 undertaken by former White House architect William Archer — the church moved to its current location at 3115 P St. NW in 1873. President Ulysses S. Grant laid the building’s cornerstone.

What followed created a history and legacy intertwined with American lore. Through it all, the church’s members remained steadfastly dedicated to their faith and their facility.

“This congregation continued to meet even when they were run out of the building,” said Mr. Sheffield, 57, referring to a time in 1862 when the federal government used the church as a hospital for wounded Civil War soldiers. “I’ve been pretty much told you don’t cancel church here, no matter what.”

Today, the 500-member church will mark the anniversary with a special service at 11 a.m. The church bell will be rung 225 times. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams, congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Council member Jack Evans have been invited to attend.

The service will be followed by a reception, a concert by the church’s music director and open-house tours relating to the church’s history.

At 4 p.m., Mr. Sheffield will be installed as senior pastor, carrying on the tradition started by Balch, who spent 53 years in the church’s pastorate.

Mr. Sheffield, who for the past 20 years was a church pastor in Lima, Ohio, is taking over for retired pastor C.C. Campbell Gillon. He will be living in a renovated house next to the church, and said he wants to continue the church’s legacy of being involved in the Georgetown community.

“First and foremost, I want to continue to build on a tradition of worship and preaching,” he said.

Church members serve meals to the homeless at Miriam’s Kitchen in Northwest, and the church houses several homeless people for three-week periods as part of the Georgetown Ministry Center.

Tracey Price has attended Georgetown Presbyterian for 20 years. She said she takes comfort in the church’s stability.

“I find it a solid rock, something that’s dependable,” said Miss Price, 46. “We’ve been here for 225 years, and we’re going to be here another 225 years.

“No matter what happens in the outside world, we’re still here.”

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