For the last three years Louie Thompson, an 82-year-old retired hotel worker, ate lunch almost every day at the John Wesley AME Zion Church in northwest Washington. Yesterday, at lunchtime, he stood outside the fire-blackened ruins of the church.

"It's a shame," Thompson said as he looked at the charred steeple and boarded-up broken glass doors. "I eat here every day for lunch. I pay 50 cents for it. I couldn't fix no dinner at home for 50 cents."

The senior citizen lunch program had become a daily fixture at the church, where about 20 persons aged 60 years or older could have simple meals for donations of 50 cents or less.

Thompson was among dozens of neighborhood residents and churchgoers who stopped by the church, at 14th and Corcoran streets NW, to see the remains of Tuesday's fire, which wiped out the congregation's nearly completed $400,000 restoration project.

The chruch's congregation of about 4,000 people includes many school teachers, government workers, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, contractors, scretaries and retired workers.

Many member of the congregation grew up in the 14th street corridor, but have since moved to other parts of the city and the Washington suburbs.

Jessie Poole, 85, a member of the church since 1927, said her daughter, Lula M. Lewis, brought her by the church yesterday because "I just had to see it."

Poole said she had been sick and had not attended services at the church since December. "It's the only church I have ever attended."

"I was practically born in that church," said 67-year-old Clara R. Hill, who for years caught a bus from her Southeast home to weekly church services.

Hill, who formerly lived on 15th Street near the church, said her mother joined the church in 1916.

Fire officials said yesterday that Tuesday's fire started from a hot plate in an anteroom behind the church alter and pulpit. The hot plate ignited some paper and the fire rapidly spread.

No one was injured, although several senior citizens were at the church, preparing to have lunch, when the fire began.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Cecil Bishop, said church officials are planning to rebuilt the 128-year-old structure at a cost estimated $600,000 by the architect for the restoration project.Bishop said the congregation will meet in the meantime at the Simpson Hamline Methodist Church at 4501 16th St. NW, beginning Sunday.

According to Lela Smith, who works with the program, the senior citizens' lunch program the church had offered will be offered instead at Metropolitan Baptist Church, 1225 R St. N.W.

"We've trying to work things out," said Bishop, who returned to the city Tuesday night from a church conference in Miami.

Thomas Washington, chairman of the chruch's trustee board, said he hopes that the insurance will cover the loss.

John Wesley AME Zion Church, know as the "Mother Chruch" for the other AME Zion congregations in the city, was founded in 1847 by John Brent and John Ingram.

These two men, along with seven other black persons, started an independent worship group known as the "Little Society of Nine." They met for two years in Brent's home at 1800 L St. NW.

In 1851, a one-story structure was built in the 1100 block of Connecticut Avenue NW. In 1902, the congregation bought the Berean Baptist Church on 18th Street near L Street NW.

The present structure at 14th and Corcoran streets NW was purchased in 1914 for $65,000.

On September 14, 1936, the chruch was designated the National Church of Zion Methodism.

Marion Thomas, the architect for the church's restoration project, said the restoration began two years ago.

Thomas said new carpet was placed on the floors. The walls were scraped and repainted. The outside bricks were sanded, and a new roof was installed.

In january, the congregation began meeting at the Emory United Methodist Church at 6001 Georgia Ave. NW, while the chruch was being rebuilt. On the first Sunday in May, the members returned to their church.

"We hadn't even had a dedication service [for the restoration project]," said Charles Williams, a church trustee.

Thomas said he had planned to take pictures of the completed restoration project yesterday. He said a couple of light fixtures, which were on order, were the only remaining items in the project.

Washington, chairman of the church board of trustees, said it took church members 18 months to raise the money for the restoration project. The members held various fund-raising activites, including rallies, bake sales, magazine drives, rummage sales, raffles, and dinners, he said.

"I don't know what we're going to do now," said Clara Hill, who has been attending the Church since 1917. "I guess we'll have to start over again." CAPTION: Picture 1, Louie Thompson: "I eat here every day"; Picture 2, Church trustee Charles Williams: "We hadn't even had a dedication service" for restoration. By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post