Copyright 2020 © Neal Campbell
The Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter at Alabama and Branch Avenues in Southeast Washington, D. C. was an unusually devout and unusually modest community. The congregation met in a fairly dreary adapted space that was built in the 1950s to be the parish hall once the church was built, which it never was. It was typical sturdy-but-cheap cinder block construction with institutional tile floors. As you entered the front hall it had the smell of a well-used, but well-maintained multipurpose building redolent of daily cleaning and a slight tinge of candle wax and incense.
The worship space itself was outfitted modestly but traditionally with as many beautiful things as the congregation could manage. I don’t recall any stained glass windows. In fact, the most beautiful effect in that regard was that through the frosted glass of the (liturgically) west facing window where one saw a handsome row of slender evergreen trees outside which occasionally swayed gently in the wind. The chancel was arranged in a traditional divided manner with the altar against the wall facing eastward. The organ was a Möller Artiste of four ranks.
But this is where any acquiescence to modesty ended. The services were conducted with great solemnity and color, with all the resources the small parish could muster, but were entirely devoid of pomposity. A significant portion of the service was sung which caused more than one congregant to quip that the pastor’s name was apt, as he did indeed sing as much of the service as possible.
I had substituted at the church around Thanksgiving and Advent of 1968 so I was known around the place when the permanent job became vacant the first of the next year and I was appointed. I was a high school student and had yet to obtain my drivers’ license. I was nothing approaching a prodigy in the textbook sense, but the fact that I was good, competent, and reliable at that age was cause for comment and a certain amount of adulation. The all-volunteer choir was small and of moderate ability, but I recall we sang anthems of enough gravitas that I still know and use some of them—things of the caliber that are in the Oxford Easy Anthem Book, which more than one wag has dubbed the Oxford Not Quite Easy Enough Anthem Book!
I only served the church for about four or five months, but this was my first regular position—the first instance where I was the organist (and in this case, also choirmaster) of the church. The services were elaborate by any measure, especially so in my experience, even though I had been to a few services at Washington Cathedral by this time. They consisted of various combinations of what we would now call Morning Prayer and/or Eucharist. They may even have used the terms MATINS and MASS. The full complement of Holy Week services beginning on Palm Sunday, the Maundatum ceremonies on Maundy Thursday, the Good Friday liturgy, and the Easter Vigil were all done in their entirety. So, before I was old enough to drive a car, and continuing throughout my career, the intricacies of any service I’ve been presented with has not been an impediment, and I always felt at home in the services of varying denominations, and in varying forms and styles.
Pastor Senger was thorough and precise, but in no way was he what we would today call a Type A personality. He was genuinely devout and conducted the services in a way that left no doubt that it was the most important thing in the world for him to be doing at that moment. Typically, we had a few moments of socializing between the two morning services each Sunday and that pretty much is the sum of my recollection of our interaction. He would inquire about my school and organ studies; by this time I was studying regularly with William Watkins and playing in competitions and student recitals around town.
The job required me to be present for choir rehearsals on Thursday evenings and two services on Sunday morning at 8:00 and 11:00. Since I did not drive, the arrangements were somewhat intricate, but it worked and the side benefit was that I got used to relying on the D. C. Transit bus system—this being in the years just prior to the Metro. On Thursdays after school, I would take the bus from the Takoma terminus down to Federal Triangle, and then change to a bus that went down the length of Pennsylvania Avenue SE, across the Anacostia River, get off at Branch Avenue and walk several blocks to Alabama Avenue where the church was located. Then, after choir rehearsals on Thursday nights, my father would meet me in the car from his second job which was somewhere on East Capitol Street. Then, on Sunday mornings, we would reverse the plan: he would drop me off at about 7:30 a.m. and then continue on to his job.
The real fun came when I would take the bus home after Sunday services around noon. I would explore the city sometimes not arriving back home in Takoma Park until dark. I would have lunch at any number of places I discovered on Pennsylvania Avenue in the neighborhood of the church or in downtown Washington, such as Reeves or the Hot Shoppes on 14th Street not too far from where Metro Center is today. I would check out any church along the way that looked interesting. Sunday afternoons usually included taking the bus from downtown, through Georgetown and up Wisconsin Avenue to the Cathedral for Evensong, and from thence up to Friendship Heights and change to a bus that went along Western Avenue to Silver Spring and ultimately Takoma. It boggles my mind to think of doing this as a young teenager today—no cell phones or text messaging to check in. I do remember always planning to have enough change for the bus and a pay phone, which were then plentiful.
The only conversation I actually recall with Pastor Senger had to do with the parish finances in general. One Sunday there had been a typical stewardship address which included plans for the eventual building of a proper church. At our visit over coffee between services I recall him saying he wasn’t worried in the least about the outcome. He said if it was God’s will it would happen and it was out of his hands. There was nothing about him that indicated he had the sort of ambition to be anything other than the shepherd of this congregation, or that he had any sort of planned career path in mind. In fact, he never left Holy Comforter, finally retiring from there in 2009. I remember on my last day as their regular organist after Easter when he saw me he just said “it’s a sad day.” In retrospect, I’m sorry I didn’t experience a couple of complete liturgical seasons with him. I learned a lot.
In 1987 this church did a modest renovation of their worship space which included reorienting the layout. The altar was now under the frosted windows at the opposite end of the church with the evergreens, now larger, still gently waving in the breeze behind the altar. The choir and a new Karl Wilhelm organ was at the opposite end of the room where the altar had been previous. I was highly honored to be asked to come back and play one of the dedicatory recitals. It was in October 1987 that I went up on a Sunday after church in Richmond to practice and play a late afternoon recital following Evening Prayer. Upon walking into the front hall, that familiar distinct aroma greeted me, as did a few familiar faces from some twenty years previous, including Jeanne Shuey from the choir. Pastor Senger was still there presiding, greeting, infusing the place with warmth, dignity, and lots of pride in the new organ.
In the cursory research for this remembrance I found out that Pastor Senger died on July 20, 2018 at a facility in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and his funeral was from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church also in Gaithersburg. He was 90 years old, and retired from Holy Comforter in 2009 after serving as its pastor for 50 years. Apparently, he attended Good Shepherd regularly, and I found a YouTube clip of the celebratory observance of his 65th anniversary of ordination held there in 2016.
The bishop presiding over the extended presentation, which took place before the Prayers of the People at the regular morning service, and he related some of Pastor Senger’s accomplishments which were many. He had been a leader in both the religious and the political community in Southeast Washington. He also was commended for his leadership in growing liturgical awareness within the Lutheran Church in America. Apparently, the observance of the Easter Vigil at Holy Comforter was among the first to take place in that denomination in the country. Perhaps it was even the one for which I played my one Easter with them!
In this YouTube footage Pastor Senger was in a wheelchair and spoke only a very brief word of thanks toward the end, but his voice was unmistakably resonant and clear, though considerably weaker than what I remember from the vigorous 40-year-old from whom I learned so much during the first few months of 1969.
From the website of Holy Comforter Lutheran Church in 2020 which I found as I was preparing this article:
The Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter was founded in 1945, and for most, if not all of its existence, we have been strongly committed to worship in the liturgical tradition. During the fifty year pastorate of The Reverend Franklin Gwynn Senger III, who retired in 2009, Holy Comforter was active in the Society of the Augsburg Confession, which worked to promote a greater appreciation of the western liturgical tradition, and it was one of the first Lutheran congregations in the Washington area, to offer the Eucharist every Sunday.
Holy Comforter has always had a strong involvement in the community, and, in the early 1960’s, was active in the successful movement to integrate the Hillcrest area and eliminate the system of real estate covenants that excluded persons of color. Holy Comforter helped in the formation of the Hillcrest Civic Association, and has been and still is the meeting place for several community organizations.
Holy Comforter was never a large congregation. Although attendance averages twenty to forty people a Sunday, we have a core of active and committed members. The congregation was integrated by the 1960’s and roughly half the membership are white and half are people of color. Our members are scattered all over the area. Some live in the neighborhood, but others come from as far away as Columbia, Maryland and Reston, Virginia.