Stephen Bloomer Balch

Original Tombstone Restoration
Dedication of New Replicated Tombstone

Report by Elder Charlie Alexander
September, 2009

It was like the Decoration Days of bygone days when families returned on Memorial Day to gather at the family gravesite to honor their deceased forebears, socialize, decorate their graves, and informally renew their vow to uphold the family traditions and values.

On September 13, it was Decoration Day at GPC, and the honoree was Stephen Bloomer Balch, our first and longest-serving pastor, who served from 1780 to 1833.

We marked the occasion by dedicating the newly replicated Balch gravestone in Oak Hill Cemetery during the morning worship service. Eric remarked later at the gravesite itself that it was the first time he had presided over the dedication of something two blocks away. After a light lunch after the worship service, a group of parishioners – an estimated 30 in number – made their way on foot and by auto to the cemetery to view the new stone and bless it with a brief prayer.

Oak Hill was kind enough to open the Renwick Chapel, which is just steps away from the grave, so that the group could view a plaque on the inside front wall, again paying tribute to Dr. Balch. The plaque was placed in the chapel in 1932 by the Daughters of the American Revolution. It reads in part:” . . . He Planted the Gospel in Georgetown , Founded “The Bridge Street Presbyterian Church” and was for more than 50 years its Pastor. In Life he Practiced what he Preached. No eulogy can add to such a record.”

But with all the tributes over the years, one piece of unfinished business remained.

Unfortunately, the gravesite had been allowed to fall into unseemly disrepair. In 2006, as Jill Fri began to put together her illustrated history of the church, we were reminded as we attempted to photograph the Balch tomb of the shameful neglect of the site.

The GPC Heritage Committee decided collectively it could stand this slight of our founder no longer. Since responsibility for ownership of the site had faded, the Board of Managers of the cemetery, with the urging of Ella Pozell, superintendent of Oak Hill, granted the committee permission to proceed with the restoration. Mrs. Pozell proved to be a pillar of support and encouragement during the entire project. Perhaps her most notable act, however, was to put us in touch with Clift A. Seferlis, a respected stone artisan who had in recent years, among other projects, headed the restoration of the fountains at Hillwood, the Marjorie Merriweather Post estate. “Andy” Seferlis advised us that the quality of the marble in the original Balch stone could not withstand outdoor exposure much longer. Thus, it was decided to restore that stone and move it inside the church, at the entry to the Columbarium, and replace it with a precise reproduction made from a more durable Tennessee marble. The enthusiastic leadership of Susan Page, chairman of the committee, was invaluable in getting the project under way, and Phil Fleming, who succeeded her, faithfully carried on the work to its completion. Charlie Alexander was designated the liaison to work with all those involved in the project. The work was funded by private contributions and an allocation from the committee’s annual budget.

The site also carries a bronze marker providing further background on Dr. Balch’s life and citing the role of the GPC congregation in restoring the site.

Dr. Balch’s remains were originally interred in the wall of the Bridge Street Church of “The Presbyterian Congregation in George Town,” and an appropriate marker was erected against the wall by his children, honoring his distinguished and pioneering ministry. When it was necessary to raze that church and move to a larger site on what is now P Street, Dr. Balch’s remains and marker were moved to a new Presbyterian Cemetery on a city block at 33rd and Volta Place, N. W. In 1874, W. W. Corcoran, a prominent banker, who had an almost reverential admiration for Dr. Balch and his ministry, received permission from the Balch heirs to move the remains and stone to a lot in a prominent location in Oak Hill Cemetery at 3001 R Street, N. W. Mr. Corcoran had acquired 15 acres for the cemetery, which he then donated to the incipient “Cemetery Corporation” when it was chartered by Congress in 1849, and he remained a dominant figure in its management. Since the move in 1874, responsibility for maintaining the physical objects on the Balch site was apparently diffused, and the stone lapsed into steady deterioration.

And so it was that on a glorious September Sunday, September 13, the unfinished business of honoring Stephen Bloomer Balch was completed, almost 176 years to the day after his death on September 22, 1833, and his memory is again properly enshrined in his burial site.