One by one, the new and returning members of the D.C. Council were greeted with mild applause yesterday as they marched into the Council Chamber to be sworn in. When John A. Wilson entered, last, he got a standing ovation.

It was Wilson's idea to create a separate inauguration for the council as a first step to giving it more prestige, and the jubilant ceremony climaxed when he took the oath to become chairman of the 13-member group.

Once Wilson dropped his right hand and began to speak about the chores ahead, the standing-room-only crowd of political and business leaders, ministers and scores of residents fell silent.

First, he told a joke. Wilson, who for months has issued bleak warnings about the city's financial crisis, said his wife, Bonnie, had pleaded with him "not to depress the people" with his remarks. "No easy task," he said with a frown.

Wilson then noted the motto of the late Washington Redskins coach, George Allen: The future is now.

"There is no doubt that these are not the easiest of times for this city," Wilson said. "We have run out of windfalls and quick fixes . . . . Today we embark on a new journey."

Six other new or reelected council members also were sworn in yesterday, including newcomers Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6) and Linda Cropp (D-At Large). Their arrival, along with Wilson's election as chairman, signals one of the council's most significant transitions since its establishment in 1974.

Brazil, a former lobbyist for Potomac Electric Power Co., defeated four-term council member Nadine P. Winter this fall. Cropp, a former school board member, replaces Betty Ann Kane, a council member since 1979 who did not seek reelection and ran unsuccessfully for D.C. delegate.

Wilson takes the reins of the council from David A. Clarke, who left his seat to run for mayor. Clarke and Winter were original members of the council. Now, Wilson is the only original member.

He has vowed to make the council, which has often been criticized as weak-willed and too divisive, an equal partner with Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon in governing the city.

In recent months, he and a council majority have taken several steps to fulfill that promise. For the first time, they have granted themselves the authority to review all city contracts and leases valued at $1 million or more. Just last week, in a move to keep a more watchful eye on the government, Wilson expanded the number of council committees from 10 to 13.

In a separate ceremony last night, Jesse L. Jackson and Florence Pendleton, shadow senators, and Charles J. Moreland, shadow representative, were sworn in to serve as congressional lobbyists for D.C. statehood.

"I accept the burden of service gladly for statehood and democracy," said Jackson after taking the oath at the Washington Convention Center. Also sworn in last night were more than 300 advisory neighborhood commissioners, who will lobby the District government for neighborhood services.

Yesterday's council celebration was filled with promises of a new era of efficiency and progress, but tempered by anxiety about the District's financial problems, which Dixon and Wilson have described as their first and most formidable task. The city may have a deficit as high as $300 million when the fiscal year ends in September.

The new council also must contend with the District's epidemic of violence -- a record 483 people were killed in 1990 -- and its troubles in trying to improve public schools, housing and health care.

"We have some tough decisions, unpopular decisions that will affect people's lives," Brazil said.

"We're going to need strength and courage."

Staff writer Thomas Bell contributed to this report.