Around the depressed downtown streets near St Mary's Church, Sophie Johnson is known as the guardian saint of the elderly.

Their voices are filled with respect, almost reverence, as seniors at the church describe the gentle artistry of Johnson's service to the church community, and the legendary fearlessness of the nightstick-wielding 62-year-old woman who has singularly guarded the church for the past eight years.

"She's better than a man," declared Rebecca Frye, 82. Would-be attackers beat a hasty retreat when confronted by the commanding presence of the woman dressed in jeans, a walkie talkie and handcuffs riding her hip, Frye said. "They come up to attack some of us, and she just looks at them."

Though crippled by arthritis, Johnson, who wears a heavy leg brace, says she voluntarily patrols the weed-congested lots and side streets of the church at Fifth and H streets NW as a labor of love. In a similar year-long project, she scraped and refinished the ornate, century-old, oak doors of the church.

She has a saintly aura about her, co-workers say. Serene and smiling, she nurses the sick, feeds and clothes the needy and tends to innumerable church tasks such as weeding the church garden, repairing lawn furniture and organizing the monthly church dinners.

"She's her happiest when she's giving to someone else," said Monsignor William Curlin, pastor of the church. Katherine Cole, director of St. Mary's senior citizens program, describes Johnson as the most "humanistic" individual she has ever met.

Johnson, a short woman with gun-metal gray hair and a no-nonsense glare, is unaffected by the flattery. In the deep, commanding voice that, by her own account, has cowered purse snatchers and hold-up men, she said, "My trust is in the Lord, I'm here for one purpose, to serve Him and His people."

A native Washingtonian, she calls the downtown streets around Chinatown home. She was raised in a house two blocks away from St. Mary's. Another 30 years were spent as a professional watchmaker for a jeweler on 11th Street NW.

Separated from her husband 30 years ago, her only child died of cancer in 1971. Since that time St. Mary's has become a second home where she finds "great comfort and happiness."

She says the neighborhood patrol is a divine mission, but others see it as a dangerous, thankless job, shunned by both men and women. "I have had some experiences," she says quietly, "but I've been fortunate enough to ward off the rapes by watching the place very closely."

Occasionally those attending the nearby Gospel Mission will get "nasty," said Johnson. Or rowdies must be ejected from the church.

"I just put two out of the church before you came," she tells a visitor. Another problem, says Johnson, is caused by the motorists who zoom around the infirm residents she directs to a senior citizens complex across the street. When necessary, she'll radio police at a nearby district station for help. As a rule, however, she says she tries not to disturb the police if a stern word or the use of her nightstick will suffice.

In the "olden days," people respected property and the elderly, said Johnson. But not anymore. A weed-ridden private lot next to the church's parking area has become overrun with rats and people who use it as a bathroom and camping ground, she said.

"When you drive your car down there, you never know what's going to jump out of the bushes," she said disgustedly.

A particular sore point, however, is what Johnson views as the abandonment of the elderly by city officials.

"These people have built a foundation in this city," said Johnson of the elderly. "Now that they've gotten old, people have forgotten them. Unless they live in public housing, everything they get they have to pay for. There are many programs (for the elderly) on paper, but they're never developed."

Until St Mary's began it's monthly church suppers, arts and crafts instruction and other free activities for seniors, no social outlets existed for elderly residents living in the downtown area, said Curlin. With the help of people like Johnson, Frye and dozens of other worshipers at St. Mary's, he said, the church programs have flourished.

"The aged take care of one another," he said. The church, is "a family. That's why people come to St. Mary's. Our attendance (in the thousands) has more than doubled, and it's because we say to people, 'We offer you an opportunity not only to pray but to serve also.'"

Sophie Johnson is proof of that.