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Lost Capitol Hill: A Scandal at Christ Church
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Lost Capitol Hill: A Scandal at Christ Church

October 4th, 2010 by Robert Pohl · 5 Comments · Capitol Hill

Christ Church today is known for its welcoming atmosphere and outreach to the community, including of course its long-time housing of the G Street Cooperative Playschool. It was not always like this, as it began as a much more straight-laced congregation to which the likes of Thomas Jefferson belonged.

It was a brief period in the 1960s, however, during which the antics of those at Christ Church caught the eye of the residents nearby as well as the editors at the Washington Post.

It was 1965. White flight was in full swing on Capitol Hill, and it was exactly the members of Christ Church who were most likely to leave their homes for the perceived safety of the suburbs. The number of parishioners was dropping rapidly, and it was clear that something needed to be done. Enter the Reverend Donald Wylie Seaton, recently the rector of a church in Adelphi, MD and now at St. Patrick’s in NW DC with the aim of becoming the pastor of a troubled inner-city church.

Seaton was no ordinary pastor. He had attended the University of Chicago, but had financed his studies by working in a copper mine in Michigan during the summers. After receiving his degree, he joined the Navy, but soon thereafter began attending a seminary in Alexandria, VA. During this time, he also married Stasa Forlan of Yugoslavia.

The new pastor’s first act was to open the church’s playground to all the children in the neighborhood, and soon thereafter, there were African-American children attending the Sunday school, as well. The congregation remained overwhelmingly white, however, and continued to lose members precipitously.

Seaton then began to attract a very different sort of congregant. He reached out to the newly-named hippies who lived in the neighborhood, and convinced them to join his venerable church. And join they did. Some came just for the services, but a fair number also simply moved into the rectory, which directly adjoined the church.

The mix between old and new was uneasy, at best, and stories are told of hippies dancing obliviously through the church service. The Washington Post reported in a January 13, 1968 article that “[m]ost of the young people admit to the occasional use of marijuana and LSD.” This was forcefully brought home to one of the older parishioners, who discovered a bag of pot stuck in the brass altar rail while it was being polished.

Shortly after the publication of this article, Seaton was asked to leave. He was allowed to stay for a few more months. During this time, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, precipitating violent riots throughout the city. Palm Sunday fell just three days after the assassination, and though many people chose to stay home that day, Seaton and his congregation held their service as usual. After the service, they went out in the streets, which were still covered in glass and other debris and handed out palm fronds to all those who had ventured out that day.

Seaton moved to California, where he worked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district for a while before moving across the bay to Oakland. Here he founded what is probably his most lasting achievement, St. Paul’s Episcopal School. This was, in fact, the second school he had helped to found. The first? Capitol Hill Day School.

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  • Marcus

    I think it is safe to say The Capitol Hill Day School continues to reflect Seaton’s innovative and community-oriented spirit.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2QWM2DYBOWWU6Z3U7PVMCKXJHQ Dennis Gilmore

    After 1 year ago this reply will be lost for ever but here it goes. Rev Seaton, was a hippie himself. I remember him very well he changed the alter apperance, he brought in the new pipe organ. He replaced Rev Green whom I thought was much better. He took the churchaway from us kids, and the old people and even though I thought the hippies were cool. They didnt want to be around us, and acted well like far out man!
    No it was not all a good thing.

    Still check up on my old church.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/2QWM2DYBOWWU6Z3U7PVMCKXJHQ Dennis Gilmore

    After 1 year ago this reply will be lost for ever but here it goes. Rev Seaton, was a hippie himself. I remember him very well he changed the alter apperance, he brought in the new pipe organ. He replaced Rev Green whom I thought was much better. He took the churchaway from us kids, and the old people and even though I thought the hippies were cool. They didnt want to be around us, and acted well like far out man!
    No it was not all a good thing.

    Still check up on my old church.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Kell/1069628748 Bill Kell

    I met Don Seaton in San Francisco where he was Vicar At St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church. His leadership and preaching literally brought us back from the “brink”. He baptized our daughter, Sheila, and charged us as a congregation to “support and enmcourage her to be her own woman as she grows”. She was eight weeks old. Today she is that woman. Very fond memories of the man.
    Bill Kell

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bill-Kell/1069628748 Bill Kell

    I met Don Seaton in San Francisco where he was Vicar At St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church. His leadership and preaching literally brought us back from the “brink”. He baptized our daughter, Sheila, and charged us as a congregation to “support and enmcourage her to be her own woman as she grows”. She was eight weeks old. Today she is that woman. Very fond memories of the man.
    Bill Kell