When the oldest newspaper published in Washington celebrated its 125th anniversary last month, the editor printed congratulatory messages from the presidents of three countries.

The one from Ronald Reagan was the only one in English.

The other two were signed by the heads of state of West Germany and Austria. As with everything else in the weekly Washington Journal, except the advertisements, the letters were printed entirely in German.

"The idea of its founders was to provide an American-type newspaper printed in the German language that would help cushion the shock experienced by newly arrived immigrants and ease their entry into this society," said Gerald Kainz, who owns the Journal and edits it from a tiny office tucked away in the National Press Building.

Today hardly anything remains of the once sizeable German immigrant community the paper originally served, which a century ago constituted the largest foreign-language group in the city.

"Most of them have long since been assimilated and moved to the suburbs," said Nancy Pierce, chairwoman of the Greater Washington D.C. German Heritage Society. "Now the German community is scattered all over the metropolitan area."

Today, the Journal's readership consists mostly of diplomats from the German-speaking countries, students studying the language, and second or third generation German-Americans who want to keep in touch with their roots.

The full-size newspaper, which usually runs 16 pages, carries mostly national and international news items culled from the German wire services and advertisements in English announcing upcoming activities and the openings of new German restaurants and shops.

Kainz, a former newsman for German television who took over the paper in 1967, said the Journal still has an important role to play. During his tenure, the paper's circulation has risen 4,500 to about 5,000 subscribers, an improvement he attributes to a general reawakening of interest in German history and culture.

"People read the paper to keep up with events in the German community and to find out what the various groups are doing," he said. "We'll probably be around for another 100 years."

He said the paper thrived during the heyday of German immigration to Washington, which occurred between 1848 and 1914.

Among the immigrants was a 25-year-old former whaleship deckhand, cigar store owner and printer's assistant named Werner Koch, who arrived in the District in early 1859. Koch promptly set up shop in a building at Seventh Street and Louisiana Avenue NW, in what was then the heart of Washington's German community, and launched himself on a long and distinguished career as a newspaper publisher.

"Although the purpose of our newspaper will hardly go beyond that of a useful, impartial local sheet," he wrote in German in the first issue of his paper, originally called the Washington Intelligenz-Blatt, "we declare right at the outset that we do not intend to avoid any timely question."

In the years that followed, Koch wrote much of the newspaper's copy, set and printed every issue, collected the subscription fees and even served as his own paper boy, according to historical documents.

The years between the end of the Civil War and America's entry into World War I marked a golden age for the Journal as German life in the nation's capital reached its zenith.

In 1866, the District's German Civil War veterans formed the Schutzenverin, or Shooting Club, and opened a large park on the east side of Georgia Avenue just north of Howard University, an area inhabited by prosperous German merchants. For the next two decades the park was the most popular recreation place for Washington's German community.

The German Concordia Church maintained an orphan's home at 1327 L St. NW during that period. It was moved to 2422 K St. NW in 1879. In 1890 the home was moved to Good Hope Road in Anacostia, which was then rural and offered the children clean air and open spaces. In 1966, it was moved to a 68-acre site near Upper Marlboro and, as the number of child referrals dwindled, the facility was used for other programs.

Around the turn of the century, German churches, social clubs and singing societies also flourished. Great annual festivals and parades were staged throughout the city at frequent intervals.

Old St. Mary's, which still stands on Fifth Street NW between G and H streets, was the first German Catholic church in the city. It served the surrounding German community as well as Germans who lived in other parts of the city such as north of Foggy Bottom.

In 1910, the census bureau reported more than 18,000 German residents in Washington, not including their American-born descendants.

The onset of World War I in 1914 and America's eventual entry into that conflict against Germany marked a turning point for the District's German-American community.

The war generated a violent and hysterical effort to eradicate everything of German origin and its effects on German-American individuals and institutions in Washington were disastrous. There were riots against Germans.

By that time Hermann G. Winkler, a former printer employed by the paper, was at the helm of the Journal. Winkler had gambled his life savings to purchase the paper in 1915, after it had begun to flounder following the death of Koch four years earlier.

Winkler's loyalty to this country was never questioned by the government. The Journal received a special permit allowing it to continue to publish when America entered the war in 1917 -- but the paper was denounced as "un-American" and "pro-Kaiser."

Within a few months of the start of hostilities, the District's German community started to disintegrate as its citizens moved out and tried to melt into general American society. In 1920, the census bureau recorded fewer than 3,500 German-born residents within the city limits.

World War II created a resurgence of anti-German feeling, but the Journal persevered. After the war, it was one of the few German-language newspapers left in the United States.

In 1953, Winkler passed control of the paper to his American-born son, Carl H. Winkler, who expanded its local coverage and saw the Journal through its 100th year of publication.