January 6, 1893 – Congress Authorizes Construction of the National Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, commonly known as Washington National Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington, D.C. The Neo-Gothic structure is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States. (The largest church in the world is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The largest cathedral in the United States is Saint John the Divine in New York City.)

The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, under the first seven Bishops of Washington, erected the cathedral under a charter passed by the United States Congress on January 6, 1893. Construction began on September 29, 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of more than 20,000, and ended 83 years later when the “final finial” was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

The idea for a “national” church was developed early, as part of French architect Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the capital city. It was over a century, however, before Congress finally acted on the proposal.

What took so long? According to Richard G. Hewlett in “The Creation of the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral,” [Anglican and Episcopal History, Vol. 71, No. 3 (September 2002), pp. 350-379 online here], much of the holdup was related to the need to establish a diocese in Washington, D.C. This required the division of the diocese of Maryland, which prompted many disagreements over the political and financial repercussions for the local churches. After the Civil War, D.C.’s population grew and the parishes there were more “affluent and vibrant” than those in Maryland. As the need for a new church in D.C. arose, and many of those crowded out of existing churches were congressmen, the subject of a cathedral again arose. Years of political wrangling ensued, but this time with a few tireless proponents pushing the project along. Somehow it got send to Congress, largely due to the work of George William Douglas, who became rector of St. John’s Church (by the White House) in 1889. The charter granted by Congress gave the cathedral foundation legal standing but not much else. Nevertheless and importantly, the adoption of the charter made the division of the diocese of Maryland inevitable.

The west rose window was dedicated in 1977 in the presence of both Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (and Supreme Governor of the Church of England) and the 39th President, Jimmy Carter.

Though Douglas had to move to California for his wife’s health, he continued to help plan the cathedral by mail. As Hewlett shows, Douglas saw the cathedral as both a diocesan and a national institution, and devised a complex governing structure to handle both functions. He also proposed the name eventually adopted by the cathedral.

Hewlett explains that “At a time when separation of church and state was not a sensitive issue in public discourse, the leaders of the cathedral project in Washington had no compunctions about seeking a congressional charter or promoting the cathedral as a national institution.” Furthermore, Episcopalians quite liked the idea of becoming the “Church of America.”

Nevertheless, the title “Washington National Cathedral” was not formally in use until 1989.

There is much notable about the Cathedral. It’s central tower is the only place in North America to house both peal and carillon bells. The Cathedral labyrinth is a medieval design based on the one in the floor of the nave at Chartres Cathedral in France.

(Many great cathedrals have labyrinths embedded into the floors of the church. Unlike mazes, labyrinths have a single path in and out, without any false entrances or dead ends. The labyrinth symbolizes the spiritual path of life’s journey.)

There are 288 angels atop the two west towers, and 112 gargoyles on the Cathedral. One of the more recently placed gargoyles was modeled on Darth Vader.

The central “Gloria in Excelsis Tower” is 676 feet above sea level, making its top the highest point in the District of Columbia.

215 stained glass windows are set into the walls, including the “Space Window” on the south aisle of the Cathedral that contains a 7-gram piece of lunar rock from the Apollo 11 astronauts.

There are over 1500 needlepoint pieces in the Cathedral, 4,000 seats, and 10,650 pipes in the Great Organ.

The Cathedral has hosted many significant events, including the funeral services of Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Its pulpit was the last one from which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke prior to his assassination. The Cathedral is also the burial place of many notable people, and about 30 have lain in state there, including 11 presidents and 10 members of Congress.

The Cathedral is home to one of the few old growth forests still standing in the nation’s capital, Olmsted Woods, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

The Cathedral is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, it was ranked third on the List of America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects. The wonderful Bishop’s Garden terraced into the south side of Mt. St. Alban by the Cathedral is a favorite place for those who live near the Cathedral. Personally, it is my favorite place in all of Washington, D.C.

The Bishop’s Garden

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