Wednesday, June 21, 2017


Day two in Washington, D.C., was Mother's Day, and we decided to spend the morning in an unusual way--attending a service at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, more commonly known as the "National Cathedral." Since we had been running on empty on our first day, we decided to sleep in and catch the 11:15 service.

The National Cathedral isn't a non-denominational church as we had expected, but an Episcopalian Cathedral. It was granted a charter by Congress in 1891, was begun in 1907, and was completed in 1990. Congress has designated it as the "National House of Prayer." The funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford were held at the National Cathedral, which is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States, topped only by the St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City.

It's difficult to capture the size of the building (the central tower is 301 feet tall) with just one photo, but maybe five will convey its enormity:

Every December I attend a Christmas program at the local university that is basically an Episcopalian service (minus the eucharist), so the service at the National Cathedral felt familiar--lots of pageantry and processionals, lots of anthem singing, some reading and response, lots of up and down, etc.

These are some of the standouts of the service for me:
- The clergy and congregaton recited the Nicene Creed.
- Those in attendance could participate in Communion in multiple ways: sipping directly out of the chalice (with the lip of the cup being wiped in between each contact), dipping the host in the wine and eating it, or crossing their arms in front of themselves to indicate no bread and wine but just a blessing.
- There were several women priests, including the one who delivered the homily.
- The homily was a nice Mother's Day talk.
- The service ended with everyone hugging or shaking hands with their neighbors.
- Attendance looked pretty good to me. Maybe the moms out there got their kids to go because it was Mother's Day.

We waited until the worshippers had left before taking any photos.

One of the first things I ran across in one of the bays encircling the nave was the tomb of Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States. He is the only President buried in the District of Columbia.

The crusader's sword on his tomb represents his "valiant fight for peace" following World War I, and the three leaves represent his responsibilities as 1) President of Princeton University, 2) governor of New Jersey, and 3) President of the United States:

His second wife is buried with him. I wonder where his first wife is buried?

Stained glass windows in the Wilson Bay, as the tomb area is known, are by famed Austrian artist Ervin Bossanyi. According to the Cathedral website, they "depict war and peace through the lens of the Christian faith. The left lancet depicts peace as God gives us; the right lancet depicts peace as humanity destroys it, and the center lancet represents God's forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ."

Wilson's words are engraved on the wall in the bay:

I was surprised to find these memorials to Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee:

There are even stained glass windows with scenes from their lives:
 Very odd.

This memorial, on the other hand, seems a bit more appropriate:

I love the story of the Coventry Cross that hangs in one of the bays:
The ancient Coventry Cathedral in England was almost completely destroyed by German bombers during World War II.  After the bombing, one of the church's stonemasons saw two wooden beams lying in the shape of the cross. He tied them together, wrote the words "Father forgive" on the bottom, and placed them on the ruins of the cathedral altar. Later, nails from the roof truss were used to make the cross within the cross. This cross became a symbol of hope and forgiveness.

On a few occasions, Coventry Cathedral has made a replica of the original cross, using nails from the original bombed cathedral to donate to other churches. This cross is one such donation.

The cathedral was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a Brit and the leading Anglican church architect of the day, which seems a bit ironic to me as this is the "national" cathedral. I guess the planners knew what they were doing when they hired Bodley, however. He captured all that was good about gothic architecture:

The War Memorial Chapel is considered one of the most sacred spots in the cathedral.

The unique halo around Christ's head is made of swords, shrapnel, bayonets, and cannon blast:

You can always tell what part of a brass statue gets touched/rubbed the most by the burnished appearance of the metal. This one is particularly poignant. It is the Christ child, and stands just outside what is known as "The Children's Chapel":

The Children's Chapel was given by a couple who lost their six-your-old son, and everything is smaller and therefore more accessible to a child:

There were some lovely tapestries in the ambulatory around the apse:

On the other side of the ambulatory are two more traditional tapestries. The first depicts David and Goliath:

I'm not sure if this is Judith beheading Holofernes or Salome getting John the Baptist beheaded:

I like this simple request for a donation:

And what is this?

A closer look at the altar shows it to be a military memorial.
It is actually the tomb of Norman Prince, an American aviator who left a successful law practice to lead a squadron of planes for the French army during World War I. He died in a accident in his plane in 1916. His wealthy parents donated this chapel in his honor.

More exquisite stonework is found in St. John's Chapel. This crucifixion scene was carved directly into a stone wall by two craftsmen over a period of three years:

It shows what I think must be the moment when Jesus entrusts the care of his mother Mary to the Apostle John:

The main altar at the front of the church, called "The Jerusalem Altar," is made from stones from Solomon's Quarry near Jerusalem, the same quarry that is said to have provided stones for Solomon's Temple:

The ceiling soars above the Jerusalem Altar:

The carving of Christ is twice life-sized and shows him holding the orb and cross, a Christian symbol of authority. He is surrounded by 110 figures:

The grand organ has 10,647 pipes, which is almost as many as the organ in the LDS Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, which has 11,623 pipes:

The main pulpit is called the "Canterbury Pulpit" because it was carved from stone that had been part of the bell tower of Canterbury Cathedral. Many important messages have been delivered from this pulpit, including speeches by several U.S. presidents, Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King preached his last Sunday sermon here on March 31, 1968, just four days before his assassination in Memphis.

The panels illustrate the history of the English translation of the Bible and depict the Venerable Bede and William Tyndale, among others, and also show Langdon, the Archbishop of Canterbury, handing the Magna Carta to King John to be signed. 

The light streaming through the stained glass windows creates a ephemeral rainbow on the ceiling:

. . . and dancing spots on the walls:

Just to the left of the high altar is St. Mary's Chapel:

The reredos, or screen behind the altar, is carved of linden wood and covered in gold. It depicts important events in Mary's life, including the Annunciation, the wedding at Cana, Pentecost, and then death of her Son:

I really loved the reredos in the Holy Spirit Chapel:

No wonder I like it so much! It was painted by one of my favorite American artists and illustrators, N.C. Wyeth:

The National Cathedral has over 200 stained glass windows.

They depict both New and Old Testament scenes:

This window, entitled "Wings of Courage," pays homage to the U.S. Air Force. The red wings on each side represent the bloodshed of war, and the green tree in the center reminds us that just as a tree becomes green anew each spring, so does the world recover from war:

This window appears to represent doctrines and/or practices of the Episcopalian faith:

I like these scenes of women giving compassionate service:


There are several rose windows:

I think this is the rose window known as the "Creation Window." It is 26 feet wide and contains more than 10,000 pieces of glass. It also has an honor guard of U.S. state flags:

More windows:
The most famous stained glass window in the National Cathedral is "The Scientists and Technicians Window," better known as "The Space Window." It commemorates space exploration and man's first step on the moon. The moon is represented by the large red orb in the upper section, and the earth is the smaller blue planet in the bottom right:

What makes this window especially unique is that the grey dot in the center of the blood red moon is a moon rock--a REAL moon rock from the Sea of Tranquility that was donated to the cathedral by Neil Aldrin, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11. 

On one side of the entrance stands George Washington, dressed for church. Note the Masonic symbols on the wall behind his head:

I love his farmer's hands:

This stained glass window above Washington's right shoulder is entitled "Birth of a Nation":

On the other side of the entrance is this huge bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln at the time he was leaving Springfield to assume the Presidency in 1861. Engraved in a stone tablet behind him are the farewell words he spoke from the back of a train:

This truly spectacular window, located above Lincoln's left shoulder, is titled "The Bloodshed of the Civil War":

I was touched by these offerings for the poor at Lincoln's feet.

Parts of the cathedral were undergoing some repairs. 

That was a 5.8 earthquake here in 2011 that caused 34 million dollars' worth of damage to the cathedral.

Pieces of the facade that came down during the earthquake are on display outside:

We made our way to the basement, expecting the usual stony crypt. However, the first thing that caught my attention was this nativity scene set in a French village:

Then I wandered into the gift shop and noted a bust of Darth Vader in the gargoyle section. Now THAT caught my attention!

Apparently a drawing of Mr. Vader took 3rd place in a world-wide design competition. The winners were carved and mounted on the Cathedral exterior.
We were clueless about this stunning piece of art, and so we didn't get to see the actual installation. 

Anyway, what I expected to see in the Cathedral basement was a lot of this:

Other than the tomb above, however, I didn't really see a lot of traditional burial sites. Instead, the basement was almost as glorious as the upstairs, and in some places perhaps more glorious.

There are three chapels in the crypt level of the Cathedral. 

1. The Bethlehem Chapel was completed in May 1912 and has been used every single day for services since then:

The reredos behind the altar shows Mary cuddling her newborn babe while angels watch:

They are flanked by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, whose narratives spread the story of Jesus' birth and life:

2. The Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea is located exactly under the crossing of the upstairs cathedral. The heavy arches are more Romanesque than the Gothic arches on the main level, symbolic of how newer churches (Gothic) were often built on the ruins of older ones (Romanesque):

Helen Keller's ashes are interred behind the wall of this chapel, along with those of her lifelong friend and companion Anne Sullivan. I love that the information is also given in Braille, which clearly has been "read" by many fingers:

Need a portable pipe organ? This may be the closest I've ever seen:

3. The Resurrection Chapel is one of the most spectacular places in the entire Cathedral. The resurrection itself is depicted above the main altar:

It is difficult to describe the powerful impact of this small chapel.  With very little natural light, it glows with its own light created by metallic mosaics.

There are six mosaics depicting the appearances of Christ between his resurrection and his final ascension to heaven.  The first is Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene on Easter morning:

The second shows Jesus on the road to Emmaus. At the bottom of the mosaic he meets Cleophas and his wife, who invite him to join them for supper. The meal is shown at the top of the panel:

In the third mosaic, Christ appears to his apostles in the upper room and asks for food:

Then Christ shows himself to Thomas, who was not with the others in the upper room:

Jesus then appears to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberius (Galilee) and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat:

In his sixth and final appearance, Christ gives the charge to his disciples to take his message to the world:

The detailed work in these mosaics, which each required a year and a half to create, is mind-boggling. Note, for example, the tear on Mary Magdalene's cheek:

. . . or the compassionate expression on Christ's face:

. . . or the stunned expressions on the disciples' faces as they realize who is standing on the shore:

. . . or the young girl's hands folded in prayer:

Even the boarders are a carefully executed variation of shading and pattern:

This cathedral and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, also in Washington, D.C., are two of the most elaborate, beautiful, and interesting churches we have visited in the United States, perhaps even in the world. 


  1. Wow, you covered it really well. Nice post.

  2. I love your description of the service. This is an incredible cathedral. I can't decide which of your pictures I love the most. I think you could spend days and days and see new things until the end of your time inside.