Joseph Oertel, a trail attorney, spends his days preparing and arguing court cases for the National Labor Relations Board. By noon he is ready for a break at his favorite lunch spot, St. Matthew's Cathedral.

Over the past year a growing number of downtown employees are regularly giving up lunch in favor of worship services, lectures and concerts at downtown churches.

On weekdays more than 200 Catholic and non-Catholic worshipers can be found at St. Matthew's on Rhode Island Avenue, a 25 percent increase over last year. Up to 125 regularly attend lunch-time mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church near 10th and G streets NW and more than 100 attend Tuesday noon concerts at Epiphany Episcopal Church at 13th and G streets NW, also an increase over the last year of up to 25 percent. Other downtown churches report several dozen neighborhood office workers come to their weekly noon services and lectures.

In most instances these members of the working force belong to churches elsewhere or are unaffiliated, according to clergy.

The Rev. John Gigrich of St. Matthew's Cathedral said the trend is due partially to expanding office buildings but more so to increasing strains on people's personal lives due to the economy, unstable marriages and loneliness among Washington's many lonely singles.

"When people are involved in a crisisthey end up at church," said Gigrich. "Maybe you're struggling to keep a marriage together or that SOB in the next office has gotten in just one too many punches, and where else in the neighborhood can they come and sit down . . . and get away from that trap?"

To Oertel the midday prayers offer "a great deal of inner peace, joy and enlightment about the meaning of my own life." Oertel, who attends the 12:10 p.m. mass nearly every day, said he loves arguing court cases, "but that's not what gives my life meaning. My religion does that." and mass at the cathedral each Wednesday. "It's a sacrifice but I get a personal uplift from it," said Royce, an FCC budget analyst. "I wish I could come more often."

Barbara Florence, a downtown social worker, frequently listens to local artists perform works of Bach, Mozart and others at lunch at EpiphanyS organ recitals and occasionally attends noon lectures and services at various other churches as well.

Epiphany church also attracts workers to its convenient location with occasional noon lectures and with their gym which they open to the public at lunchtime for basketball, volleyball andjogging. The church also holds sporadic pre-work theology classes and opens its gym for evening dance classes. s

Epiphany's availabilty to the public is no coincidence according to ministers there who said they see the weekday as one of the most important parts of their mission.

Since Epiphany Church, like most other downtown churches, has lost substantial portions of its congregation to suburban churches in the past decade ministering to downtown workers is one way it keeps the church viable.