It was during the dark hours, more than a few winters ago, that a friend who works on Capitol Hill took me to the National Cathedral. The air was crisp with a bit of a bite.
Against a blood-red sky, pale light shrouded the Gothic church atop Mount Saint Albans in Northwest D.C. Its spires reached toward Heaven while the cruciform house of prayer slumbered a little less than two football fields deep.
Because the grand doors that front Wisconsin Avenue were locked, my Tennessee friend and I went looking for another way in.
In the cloaking darkness, we met a sculptor-in-residence who told us arcane facts about the nation’s cathedral, his craft, and how he’d landed one of the coolest jobs a modern sculptor can get. Anywhere.
We also found an unlocked door to a plain and simple chapel just large enough for 4 or 5 pilgrims. A lone hubcap from a car that had been new decades earlier rested against the front wall below a Judeo-Christian themed relief. We rested our cigars outside and went in to pray.
It was the very first American president who envisaged a house of worship in the new nation’s capital city. The National Park Service explains that descriptions of President Washington’s disclosed plans for the “City of Washington, in the district of Columbia,” published January 4, 1792, included land for “[a] church intended for national purposes, …, assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally open to all.”
The Cathedral’s “foundation stone was set on Sept. 29, 1907 by president Theodore Roosevelt,” reports cathedral.org. And “[e]ighty-three years later, on Sept. 29, 1990, President George H.W. Bush was present to witness the final stone on the cathedral set in place.” Washingtonian noted in 2007 that the cross-shaped structure stretches “more than 500 feet long from west to east and rising to a height of 301 feet, it’s the world’s sixth-largest cathedral.”
As the timeline at the Cathedral’s website explains, “[t]he dream of a national cathedral dates to the earliest days of the United States, when President George Washington and architect Pierre L’Enfant imagined a ‘great church for national purposes.’”
The Cathedral was established by authority of an 1893 Congressional charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia. Congress has designated the shrine a “National House of Prayer.”
In times of war and times of peace, the Cathedral has fulfilled its purpose.
“It’s the site of memorial services for presidents and other prominent figures,” notes Washingtonian, “most recently Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford. It hosted interfaith services after September 11, 2001, after Hurricane Katrina, and for the hostages in Iran in 1980.”
During World War II, Americans gathered at the Cathedral to offer prayers. And during a 2004 tribute that drew 150,000 to the National Mall and saw the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, an interfaith service was held at the Cathedral to remember “those who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II.” President George H.W. Bush, retired U.S. Army General John W. Vessey, and retired U.S. Marine Corps General P.X. Kelley were among those who honored the dead.
We’ve gathered at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues to mourn those we lost to the Vietnam War. And three months ago we honored the life and service of an American warrior whose nation’s life was forever changed by the captivity and torture that he endured during more than five years of captivity in the “Hanoi Hilton.”
Times such as these are important for a nation. And Dr. Edward Madigan, a former resident historian at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Lecturer in history at the University of London, explains that these moments don’t have to be about politics or “glorifying” war: “As an act of community remembrance, or a simple expression of solidarity with our ancestors, the commemoration of war is not necessarily political. The millions of British people who wear poppies every year in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday are not making political statements by so doing. Nor are they retrospectively endorsing or honouring the First World War, or any war since. What they are doing – at least on the face of it – is honouring the dead. . . .”
Cathedral leadership’s decision in 2016 to remove two flag images from windows sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their removal last year of stained-glass windows that honored Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson leave them open to the charge that they’re playing favorites among Americans who’ve fought and died in America’s wars. As NPR reported, “[t]he facility’s leadership says the decision came after long deliberations on an important question: “Are these windows, installed in 1953, an appropriate part of the sacred fabric of a spiritual home for the nation?”
A roll-of-honor for service members, a war memorial chapel, and a Veterans Day service and concert next month, are among ways the Cathedral still honors current and past military service members.
Bringing the Nation Together
Presidents both Republican and Democrat have chosen the National Cathedral as the place to offer prayers that the nation come together after victories earned in political cage fights: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.
Combat-wounded veterans and U.S. senators John McCain and Daniel Inouye, Navy combat veteran and first man on the moon Neil Armstrong; and former first ladies Edith Bolling Galt Wilson and Eleanor Roosevelt are among those paid homage at the Cathedral by a nation whose independence General George Washington knew would forever exact a high price.
The last time that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached a Sunday sermon, it was at the Cathedral. Four days later, he would be gunned down in Memphis.
Graham Meyer writes that, “The cathedral welcomes 700,000 to 800,000 visitors each year, many of them tourists who come not entirely for a religious experience but also to see the gargoyles and the moon rock. They often wander up and down the aisles while services are being held.”
Officially, Washington National Cathedral is the “Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington”. And it’s the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. It’s also the seat of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington.
To the extent that the American part of the Anglican Communion holds the National Cathedral in trust for the American People, it’s good thing. But it’s also a humbling thing. Washington National Cathedral is, after all, a national treasure.
The feature image is one of 13 that appear, along with diagrams, tables, map and text detailing all aspects of official activities related to honoring Dwight David Eisenhower, General of the Army and thirty-fourth President of the United States. The chapter is one of 29 in B.C. Mossman and M.W. Stark. The Last Salute: Civil and Military Funerals 1921 – 1969. Department of the Army. Washington 1991. The link below is to the full volume, which contains similar details following the passing of, among others, President John F. Kennedy, Former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., Army General George C. Marshall, and Former Air Force Chief of Staff General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.
Charles Bloeser is a lawyer and the researcher behind the creation of combatresearchandprose.com, a new open-source applied research initiative examining combat and those marked by it. His most recent publication, in August 2018, reports how a cancer-stricken, combat-haunted, Vietnam veteran fell between the cracks in a modern jail. It’s an account that, from that warrior’s deathbed, he asked author to share with those best able to keep the same thing from happening to others. STRIFE, at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, gave him a way to do that.