Washington’s Chinese Community Church Dedicates Its New Look and Location

Apr 12, 2009   •  

With its stately tower topped with a gold-hued cross, the elegant brick Chinese Community Church anchors the northeast corner of Chinatown as if it had been there for its entire 74-year existence.

Actually, the church has bounced from location to location across downtown Washington since it was founded by Chinese immigrants in 1935.

Not anymore. Today, when Christians worldwide celebrate the death and resurrection of their savior, Jesus Christ, the evangelical church will dedicate its new location in Chinatown and its dramatic new look.

For its pastor, the Rev. Charles Koo, the dedication bears special significance. It is a way to thank God for the gifts of a bustling congregation and for bringing them home to Chinatown.

“God is not only blessing us in terms of the building, but God also blesses us in terms of people,” he said. “As God blesses us, we ask God to make sure that we will bless others.”

The church, the only Chinese house of worship in the District, out of more than a dozen in the region, is a gathering place for the area’s disparate Chinese community and reflects the patterns of Chinese immigration in the Washington area. Even though most members have long scattered from the city as the suburbs have grown, about 350 of them return each Sunday to the Chinese Community Church.

The church has been slowly growing in recent years. Most Chinese Americans are Christian, many of them descendants of immigrants who were converted from a variety of faiths by missionaries in China. In the United States, they worship in denominations as varied as any other American.

The Chinese Community Church is nondenominational. Small groups of Chinese immigrants and their families in the early part of the 1900s would meet for worship and Sunday school and eventually formed the church, which has always had a strong evangelical tradition.

Its staid 9:30 a.m. service in Cantonese appeals to now-elderly Chinese who immigrated in the first three decades of the last century. Several years ago, it added a 10:45 a.m. Mandarin service for newer immigrants. And the 11 a.m. English-language service is its largest, with families and young people who like the contemporary evangelical flavor, with a live praise band and song lyrics projected on a screen near the pulpit.

After worship, churchgoers gather in the social hall for a $2 lunch prepared by volunteers.

“I was raised in the church, and I feel like this is my family,” said Helen Leo, 79, of Silver Spring, who began attending in 1936.

When it was founded, the church shared space with Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, about a block from Chinatown, before purchasing property at the corner of 10th and L streets NW, where it eventually built its own church in 1957. But it grew out of that space in 1994 and moved back in with Mount Vernon Place for a dozen years until purchasing the I Street property in 2006 from the Corinthian Baptist Church.

It is another transformation for the church building as well. Founded by U.S. Capitol architect Thomas Ustick Walter as a Presbyterian church in 1852, it has gone through various transformations –physically and faithwise. After the Presbyterians moved out in 1906, a Jewish congregation moved in, removing the cross-topped tower, adding a small dome and a balcony for women in the sanctuary.

The Baptists took over after the Jewish congregation, Ohev Sholom, headed uptown in 1956. They installed a baptismal pool in the sanctuary and chiseled off the tops and bottoms of the Stars of David on the pews.

Somewhere along the way, the building’s brick-and-sandstone exterior was wrapped in Formstone, the bland simulated stone that was popular mid-century.

After moving in, the Chinese Community Church did interior renovations, then was presented with an unexpected gift: $600,000 from Gould Property Co., which was developing one of Chinatown’s biggest office buildings nearby, to remove the facade and make roof repairs.

At first, church members wanted to replace the building’s leaky domed roof with a steeple, said administrator Linda Wong. “We figured that if we were doing all this work, we might as well put a steeple there since we are a Christian church.”

But the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board made clear it would likely not be approved because it was not part of the church’s original design. So the church opted to recreate the original Italianate-style tower, all 88 feet of it, with its five-foot cross.

Working off old photos and with the advice of an architectural historian, D.C. architect Darrel Rippeteau designed as close a replica as could be achieved. Over seven months, the tower was constructed, Formstone was chiseled off and the decades-old layers of paint were removed from the brick.

Church members, who raised about $400,000 for the project, are pleased with the new look.

“I think this is going to be home,” said Dan Chan, 52.

By Jacqueline L. Salmon

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