But now, as the owner, United Church of Christ, is likely to sell the historic building, forcing Lee and his congregants to vacate by the end of the month, all Lee really knows is how much he’ll miss it.
“I’m heartbroken,” Lee said a few hours before hosting a special Christmas farewell service Sunday evening. “I think it’s a loss to the city, and to our architecture, and to our community fabric to lose . . . well, any place of worship, but in particular this one.”
He paused, and added: “This presidential church.”
It is unclear exactly when or why United Church of Christ would sell Grace Reformed Church, or whether it would remain a place of worship post-sale. Marvin Silver, associate conference minister for United Church of Christ, did not respond to requests for comment.
Though the church earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, that designation places no federal restrictions on what a private owner can do with a property. Given it is also listed in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites, however, local law mandates any changes to its exterior must be approved by the city's Historic Preservation Review Board.
Grimaldi-Francesca Sanchez, office administrator for the Community Church of Washington, D.C. (CCWDC) — the second congregation, in addition to Lee’s Christ Reformed Church, that holds services at Grace Reformed — said CCWDC has not finalized its next steps.
“As of now, we’re currently going to be in this space,” Sanchez said. “We do not have a day set when we’re leaving at this moment.”
The church’s sale was inevitable, said Terry Lynch, a longtime advocate with the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Its unique history could not protect it from the trends he said are imperiling all older churches in the District: rapid gentrification, shifting demographics and a lack of religiosity among younger residents.
He pointed to the fate of Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ, about seven blocks east of Grace Reformed. That church, one of Washington’s most historically significant African American houses of worship, closed its doors in September 2018.
“A number of congregations whose styles and operations date to the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s don’t apply anymore in 2020,” Lynch said. “Congregations have had to change or move to where their parishioners have moved — which is the suburbs — or they’ve ended up closing.”
“That,” he added, “is no doubt what’s happening to this church.”
Lee saw the same signs Lynch did. About three years ago, recognizing that Grace Reformed would probably be sold, he began the hunt for a new church — eventually finding a location just a few minutes’ walk from Grace Reformed, which he revealed to his congregation for the first time Sunday.
Most of the evening, though, belonged to the past, not the future.
As the sky turned from ocher to obsidian, congregants shuffled in from the chill, shedding coats, scarves and gloves to mingle with fellow worshipers, all dressed in holiday finery and sip on eggnog prepared by Lee’s wife. Lee, who holds a doctorate in historical theology, took the lectern determined to draw parishioners’ minds back across the decades.
“This may be the last Christmas in which Grace Reformed Church, this building, is a house of worship,” Lee said. “This is the 117th Christmas this building has seen — and it is now a part of our history as a church to have worshiped in this space, to have shared its history.”
That history dates to the late 19th century, when a group of Washingtonians — all members of the Reformed Church, a faith tradition born of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation — began longing to form “an English congregation” in the nation’s capital, according to a pamphlet published on the 100th anniversary of Grace Reformed Church’s founding.
On Oct. 7, 1877, 14 of the faithful gathered in a YMCA chapel and formally adopted a resolution establishing Grace Reformed Church. The building came a few years later, after the congregation scrabbled together the funds to purchase the church’s lot — near the intersection of 15th and P streets — at 45 cents per square foot.
Construction of the church as it stands today began in 1902, when President Roosevelt showed up to lay the cornerstone and “[deliver] an address at its Dedication,” according to the Grace Reformed Church website.
“Special interest attaches to Grace Church” from that point, the centennial pamphlet notes, “because Theodore Roosevelt was a regular attendant . . . during all the years of his strenuous administration, he rarely missed a morning service while in Washington.”
Congregants grew accustomed to the sight of the 26th president rushing in “with promptness,” flanked by two secret servicemen, “just a minute or two” before services began, according to the pamphlet. On those rare occasions Roosevelt could not attend, he always sent the pastor a note explaining why.
Roosevelt’s punctuality — so regular that “folks often remarked they could set their watches by it” — stemmed from one “embarrassing” incident early on, when he showed up after the sermon had already started, according to the pamphlet. Red-faced, he apologized to the head usher and vowed it would never happen again: a promise he kept.
Roosevelt liked to walk to and from services, typically accompanied by a handful of family members or friends, according to the pamphlet. He was devoted to the church: He sent White House flowers to adorn the altar every Saturday and once remarked that he found a “sentimental satisfaction” in worshiping at Grace Reformed Church, per the pamphlet.
“Mr. Roosevelt took part earnestly in all the services, sang heartily every hymn, listened most intently, with eyes riveted on the preacher,” the pamphlet states. “Things would occur to him and he would whip out notebook and pencil and make a record of it. . . . This was done especially in the case of some poor person, whose name he would secure and then send substantial aid.”
In Roosevelt’s time, the congregation numbered in the 300s. At its peak popularity in the 1950s, the church boasted roughly 550 members.
When Lee looked out upon his congregation Sunday evening, roughly three dozen returned his gaze.
“History often comes with sadness and loss,” he told them. “A lifetime has a beginning, and an end.”
“This side of glory, history means change.”