One spring day in 1961, the Rev. Frederick Howard Meisel took a musician friend into a rundown Episcopal church on 12th and K streets NW. The only working instrument in the church was a cheap electric organ.
They had been told that acoustics of the church were "glorious," so the friend sat down and played. Father Meisel, who loves to sing, began a song.
"Why don't you become rector here?" asked the friend. "It doesn't look very promising, but you can at least make music here."
Meisel went to the Rt. Rev. Angus Dun, then bishop of the Washington Episcopal Diocese and asked about the church. "Well, Father Fred, I do want you to come to the diocese, but I give you three months before that church will close," Dun was remembered as saying.
Seventeen years later, Meisel and the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes "have not only survived, they have flourished," said Mayor Walter Washington, as he presented a Certificate of Appreciation to the parish priest at a ceremony in the mayor's District Building conference room Tuesday afternoon.
The 1:30 p.m. ceremony was attended by 50 parishioners who live in as many as 20 different suburban and city neighborhoods. They discribe themselves variously: young add old, rich and poor, strong and weak.
The award, the mayor said, was given for Father Meisel's contributions to the community, which include restoration of the decaying church into a building whic h was lasy year year named to the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
The mayor said Father Meisel has been a "great humanitarian to individuals, especially the less fortunate of this city, which is his special gift to all of us."
Father Meisel described the first six months of his ministry there during an interview after the ceremony, of ten glancing down at the flecking of his 30-year-old suit, mothballed since his mother gave it to him for his ordination.
"We had no people, no money. There were 26 parishioners in a church that seated 600 . . . The wrecker's ball was taking the neighborhood houses,and most of the people had gone to the suburbs. One of the things we wanted to do was make sure we had an integrated parish . . .
"The kids used to come into the church for day care and play. We eventually had a program of study which included their mothers. But, it was from the children that we learned of the terrible housing situation.
"There was no assistance for large families who needed housing. Often, the families who needed help had to be broken up. So 12 of us formed a group and bought three rundown houses, fixed them up as best we could in those days, and rented them out for about $100 a month."
That project grew into Family Housing Inc. which now has one house which it rents to a family of 13 for $115 a month. The board members have changed over the years, according to organization president S. Bobo Dean, and though it has never officially been a church group, Father Meisel is the only one who remained over the years.
The local highrises, the Claridge and Horizon House, both built as government subsidized housing for the edlerly, are aspects of another of the church's community projects. After the highries were built, "we furnished two apartments as models for people to visit. We shoed them how to furnish their apartments with (used) furniture for $125 apiece. That took some figuring out," said Father Meisel.
That same brand of figuring out is at least partly responsible for the stained glass windows that have been added over the years, the new doors, the new bell in a tower that broke a silence of 87 years, a new "undercroft" or basement level, fire-proofing, steeple support work and brick and mortar restoration, nearly all done with money from outside the church, often by anonymous donors.
Washington Post music critic Paul Hume praised the church's "live resonance" and baroque organ built 10 years ago by organist Robert Shone. He said they have a wonderful Bach festival each year and have a "fine music program."
The popularity of the church brings many overflow crowds during the year.
The Anglican background and style of Father Meisel forms an interesting compatibility with the doctrinal and liturgical history of the parish. A joint congregation formed by the merger of the Ascension parish and the St. Agnes parish in the 1940s, the liturgy took on the "high church" approach of the St. Agnes church. Fr. Meisel conducts high mass each Sunday at 10 a.m., and two low masses, often with lay assistance.
"Moneywise, the church is as poor as it has ever been," said Father Meisel. "We have talented people who keep us going - it's a strange kind of a church isn't it?"
A group of parishoners was asked their impression of Fr. Meisel, and at first there was silence. Then a man with a camera and cataract glasses spoke up. "He's the kind of person who finds a hungry person at the door, invites them in and fixes them a sandwich."