It was called "Christmas in April," and Charles Dickens himself couldn't have come up with a better idea. For 12 hours yesterday, more than 200 volunteers spackled and painted and rewired and reglazed the homes of 18 poor, elderly people in Mount Pleasant.

"This is so fantastic," said John Woodard, pastor of the St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church at 16th and Newton streets NW.

The project pooled the efforts of 26 organizational and corporate sponsors, including six churches, the Giant and Safeway supermarket chains, and the Washington Building and Construction Trades Council (AFL-CIO). Volunteers were gathered by Trevor Armbrister, a Reader's Digest senior editor, who wrote last year about a similar project in Texas.

The effort provided new doors, ceilings, plumbing and light fixtures, and other essential repairs at a cost of about $10,000, which was donated by charity groups and community organizations.

At a small brick house on 1411 Meridian Pl. NW, Kathy Morisse, who described herself as a "skilled flat painter," and eight other volunteers worked away on the home of Mary Spriggs, who boasted that she is "almost a century old," though she is actually a mere 84.

The volunteers replaced Spriggs' toilet, fixed light switches, painted the porch, and tossed out some of the mounds of material she had saved over the years. "I just didn't want them to throw out stuff I'd have to go out and buy again," she said.

At 1338 Fairmont St. NW, Sulah Hargett, 66, finally got the water pipes fixed in her house. They had frozen and burst last winter, leaving much of her home without water, electricity or heat.

"I'm so excited about this I can't even get myself together," she said. The 13-member crew installed insulation around the pipes, put in new pipes where necessary, and rebuilt the floor of her bathroom.

Louis Stilwell, a courtly man in his late 70s who lives in a four-story house at 1842 Lamont St. NW, has hauled water for a year from his only working spigot in the basement bathroom. Yesterday, he got his plumbing repaired.

"We thought a lot about how you help someone who obviously needs it without disturbing their sense of dignity and self-worth," said Susan Kennelly, from Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church. "The only answer was that love and giving are behind all this activity. We had to trust that in offering to help in that way" people could accept it.