Washington National Cathedral

The Washington National Cathedral, officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. Of neogothic design, it is the sixth largest cathedral in the world, the second largest in the United States, and the fourth tallest structure in Washington, D.C. The cathedral is the seat of both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, currently Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, currently John Bryson Chane. In 2009, nearly 400,000 visitors toured the structure. The congregation numbers 800.

The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, under the leadership of the nine 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 last finial was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The foundation operates and funds the cathedral, which is not funded by the U.S. government.

The cathedral is located at Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues in the northwest quadrant of Washington. It is an associate member of the Washington Theological Consortium. It 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.



In 1792, Pierre L'Enfant's "Plan of the Federal City" set aside land for a "great church for national purposes." The National Portrait Gallery now occupies that site. In 1891, a meeting was held to renew plans for a national cathedral. In 1893, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia was granted a charter from Congress to establish the cathedral. The commanding site on Mount Saint Alban was chosen. Henry Yates Satterlee, first Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, chose Frederick Bodley, England's leading Anglican church architect, as the head architect. Henry Vaughan was selected supervising architect.

Construction started September 29, 1907 with a ceremonial address by President Theodore Roosevelt and the laying of the cornerstone. In 1912, Bethlehem Chapel opened for services in the unfinished cathedral, which have continued daily ever since. When construction of the cathedral resumed after a brief hiatus for World War I, both Bodley and Vaughan had died. Gen. John J. Pershing led fundraising efforts for the church after World War I. American architect Philip Hubert Frohman took over the design of the cathedral and was thenceforth designated the principal architect. Funding for the National Cathedral has come entirely from private sources. Maintenance and upkeep continue to rely entirely upon private support. Public funding, if attempted, would likely be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment clause.

National House of Prayer

Congress has designated the Washington National Cathedral as the "National House of Prayer", and the building has, over the years, played a role in uniting Americans through both religious and secular services hosted in its precincts. During World War II, monthly services “on behalf of a united people in a time of emergency” were held, and other major events have further drawn the attention of the American people to the church, entrenching its role as a "national house of prayer".

Washington National Cathedral has played host to many major events, showing the cathedral's proud distinction as being "the national house of prayer for all people". Some of the major events include the state funerals for four American Presidents:

  • Woodrow Wilson (1924): Wilson was also interred at the cathedral
  • Dwight Eisenhower (1969): Eisenhower lay in repose at the cathedral before lying in state
  • Ronald Reagan (2004)
  • Gerald Ford (2007)

Other events include:

  • Funeral for Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown (1996)
  • Funeral for U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman (1997)
  • Funeral for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (2001)
  • Funeral for educator and civil rights leader Dorothy Height (2010)
  • Presidential prayer service the day after a presidential inauguration, and attended by Presidents: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937; Ronald Reagan in 1985; George H.W. Bush in 1989; George W. Bush in 2001 and 2005, and Barack Obama in 2009.
  • Memorial service for President Harry S. Truman (1973). Truman had planned a state funeral and burial at the cathedral. However, due to the advanced age of his wife Bess, the service was instead conducted privately in Missouri. Foreign dignitaries gathered for a memorial service at the cathedral a week after the funeral.
  • Memorial service for the casualties of the Vietnam War on November 14, 1982.
  • Memorial service for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
  • Special evensong for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre.

In addition, it was from Washington National Cathedral's Canterbury Pulpit that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the final Sunday sermon of his life, just a few days before his assassination. A memorial service for King was held at the cathedral later the same week.


Its final design shows a mix of influences from the various Gothic architectural styles of the Middle Ages, identifiable in its pointed arches, flying buttresses, a variety of ceiling vaulting, stained-glass windows and carved decorations in stone, and by its three similar towers, two on the west front and one surmounting the crossing.

Washington National Cathedral consists of a long, narrow rectangular mass formed by a nine-bay nave with wide side aisles and a five-bay chancel, intersected by a six bay transept. Above the crossing, rising 91 m (301 ft) above the ground, is the Gloria in Excelsis Tower; its top, at 206 m (676 ft) above sea level, is the highest point in Washington. The Pilgrim Observation Gallery—which occupies a space about 3/4ths of the way up in the west-end towers—provides sweeping views of the city. In total, the cathedral is 115 m (375 ft) above sea level. Unique in North America, the central tower has two full sets of bells — a 53-bell carillon and a 10-bell peal for change ringing; the change bells are rung by members of the Washington Ringing Society. The cathedral sits on a landscaped 57 acre (230,000 m²) plot on Mount Saint Alban.

The one-story porch projecting from the south transept has a large portal with a carved tympanum. This portal is approached by the Pilgrim Steps, a long flight of steps 12 m (40 ft) wide.

Most of the building is constructed using a buff-colored Indiana limestone over a traditional masonry core. Structural, load-bearing steel is limited to the roof's trusses (traditionally built of timber); concrete is used significantly in the support structures for bells of the central tower, and the floors in the west towers.

The pulpit was carved out of stones from Canterbury Cathedral; Glastonbury Abbey provided stone for the bishop's formal seat, the cathedra. The high altar, The Jerusalem Altar, is made from stones quarried at Solomon's Quarry near Jerusalem, reputedly where the stones for Solomon's Temple were quarried. In the floor directly in front of that altar are set ten stones from the Chapel of Moses on Mount Sinai, representing the Ten Commandments as a foundation for the Jerusalem Altar.

There are many other works of art including over two hundred stained glass windows, the most familiar of which may be the Space Window, honoring man's landing on the Moon, which includes a fragment of lunar rock at its center. Extensive wrought iron adorns the building, a large amount of it being the work of Samuel Yellin. A substantial gate of forged iron by Albert Paley was installed on the north side of the crypt level in 2008. Intricate woodcarving, wall-sized murals and mosaics, and monumental cast bronze gates can also be found. Most of the decorative elements have Christian symbolism, in reference to the church's Episcopalian roots, but the cathedral is filled with memorials to persons or events of national significance: statues of Washington and Lincoln, state seals embedded in the marble floor of the narthex, state flags that hang along the nave, stained glass commemorating events like the Lewis and Clark expedition and the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.

The cathedral was built with several intentional "flaws" in keeping with an apocryphal medieval custom that sought to illustrate that only God can be perfect. Artistically speaking, these flaws (which often come in the form of intentional asymmetries) draw the observer's focus to the sacred geometry as well as compensate for visual distortions, a practice that has been used since the Pyramids and the Parthenon. Architecturally, it is thought that if the main aisle of the cathedral where it meets the cross section were not tilted slightly off its axis, a person who looked straight down the aisle could experience a slight visual distortion, rendering the building shorter than it is, much like looking down railroad tracks. The architects designed the crypt chapels in Norman, Romanesque, and Transitional styles predating the Gothic, as though the cathedral had been built as a successor to earlier churches, a common occurrence in European cathedrals.

The Cathedral boasts what is probably the world's only sculpture of Darth Vader on a religious building. During construction of the west towers of the Cathedral, developers decided to hold a competition for children to design decorative sculptures for the Cathedral. The image of the villainous Vader, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett, was placed high upon the northwest tower of the Cathedral, fulfilling the role of a traditional grotesque. There are many gargoyles on the cathedral. The gargoyle designs are varying, but they are usually located on a roof or tower.


The cathedral's master plan was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a highly regarded British Gothic Revival architect of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. contributed an integrated landscaping plan for the cathedral close. After Bodley died in 1907, his partner Henry Vaughan made revisions to the original design, but work stopped during World War I and Vaughan died in 1917. When work resumed after World War I, the chapter hired New York architecture firm Frohman, Robb and Little to execute the building. Philip Hubert Frohman, who had designed his first fully functional home at the age of 14, and received his architectural degree at the age of 16, and his partners were committed to perfecting Bodley's vision, including addition of the carillon section of the central tower and a significant enlargement of the west façade, as well as countless smaller changes. Ralph Adams Cram was hired to supervise Frohman, because of his experience with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, but Cram insisted on so many major changes to the original design that Frohman convinced the Cathedral Chapter to fire him. By Frohman's death in 1972, the final plans had been completed and the building was finished accordingly.

Images of architectural details

  • Donation Thanks Engraving

  • Vaulting in northwest cloister

  • Pilgrim Observation Gallery

  • Flying buttresses

  • Lincoln statue (by Walker Hancock)

  • Statue of George Washington (by Lee Lawrie)

  • Stained-glass window

  • GITMO stone inscribed in 1964 as a gift to the Cathedral from those at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

  • Mount Sinai stone

  • Women's porch

  • South transept tympanum

  • Detail of figures flanking south doors

  • Detail of the Moses window, by Lawrence Saint

  • A depiction of Jesus' burial in the crypt (basement) of Washington National Cathedral

  • Stained glass window depicting major events of the life of Confederate General Robert E. Lee

  • Stained glass window depicting the life of Stonewall Jackson

  • Stained glass depicting Charles Warren

  • Stained glass dedicated to Andrew Carnegie

  • Darth Vader grotesque

  • The rood in the chancel arch separating the nave from the choir

Leadership and funding

The cathedral is both the episcopal seat of the bishop of Washington (currently the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane) and the primatial seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (currently the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori). Bishop Chane has announced his retirement, effective in the fall, 2011. The Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde was elected by the diocese of Washington in June, 2011, to replace Bishop Chane; upon her confirmation, she will be the 9th bishop of the diocese, and the first woman to fill that role.

The current dean of the cathedral is the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III, who took office on April 23, 2005; he has announced his retirement, effective September 18, 2011. Before becoming dean, Lloyd was the chaplain of the University of the South and later rector of Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

Former deans:

  • Alfred Harding (1909–1916)
  • George C. F. Bratenahl (1916–1936)
  • Noble C. Powell (1937–1941)
  • Zebarney T. Phillips (1941–1942)
  • John W. Suter (1944–1950)
  • Francis B. Sayre, Jr. (1951–1978)
  • John T. Walker (1978–1989; simultaneously bishop)
  • Nathan D. Baxter (1992–2003)

The National Cathedral Association (NCA) seeks to raise and provide funds for and promote the Washington National Cathedral. Across the United States, it has more than 14,000 members, more than 88 percent of whom live outside the Washington area, and who are divided into committees by state. Visitors to the cathedral provide another significant source of funds, through donations and group touring fees. Every year, each state has a state day at the cathedral, on which that state is recognized by name in the prayers. Over a span of about four years, each state is further recognized at a Major State Day, at which time those who live in the state are encouraged to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral and dignitaries from the state are invited to speak. American state flags were displayed in the nave until 2007; currently the display of the state flags alternates throughout the year with the display of liturgical banners hung on the pillars, reflecting the seasons of the Church year.

The budget, $27 million in 2008, was trimmed to $13 million in 2010. Staff was reduced from 170 to 70. There was an endowment of $50 million.


The worship department is, like the cathedral itself, rooted in the doctrine and practice of the Episcopal Church, and based in the Book of Common Prayer. Four services (and five in the summer) are held each weekday, including the daily Eucharist. Sunday through Thursday, the Cathedral Choirs sing Evensong. The forty-minute service is attended by roughly fifty to seventy-five people (more on Sunday). Five services of the Eucharist are also held on Sunday, including the Contemporary Folk Eucharist held in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, and a Healing Eucharist in the late evening.

The cathedral also has been a temporary home to several congregations, including a Jewish synagogue and an Eastern Orthodox community. It has also been the site for several ecumenical and/or interfaith services. In October 2005, at the cathedral, the Rev. Nancy Wilson was consecrated and installed as Moderator (Denominational Executive) of the Metropolitan Community Church, by its founding Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Troy Perry.

Each Christmas, the cathedral holds special services, which are broadcast to the world. The service of lessons and carols is distributed by Public Radio International. Christmas at Washington National Cathedral is a live television broadcast of the 9 a.m. Eucharist on Christmas Day. It is produced by Allbritton Communications and is shown on national affiliates in most cities around the United States. Some affiliates broadcast the service at noon. The Christmas service at the cathedral has been broadcast to the nation on television since 1953.


The Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, founded in 1909, is one of very few cathedral choirs of men and boys in the United States with an affiliated school, in the English choir tradition. The 18–22 boys singing treble are of ages 8–14 and attend St. Albans School, the Cathedral school for boys, on singing scholarships.

In 1997, the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls was formed by Bruce Neswick, using the same men as the choir of the men and boys. The two choirs currently share service duties and occasionally collaborate. The girl choristers attend the National Cathedral School.

Both choirs have recently recorded several CDs, including a Christmas album; a U.S. premiere recording of Ståle Kleiberg's Requiem for the Victims of Nazi Persecution; and a patriotic album, America the Beautiful.

The choirs rehearse separately every weekday morning in a graded class incorporated into their school schedule. The choristers sing Evensong five days a week (the Boys Choir on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Girls Choir on Mondays and Wednesdays). The choirs alternate Sunday worship duties, singing both morning Eucharist and afternoon Evensong when they are on call. The choirs also sing for numerous state and national events. The choirs are also featured annually on Christmas at Washington National Cathedral, broadcast nationally on Christmas Day.

The Great Organ was installed by the Ernest M. Skinner & Son Organ Company in 1938. The original instrument consisted of approximately 8,400 pipes. The instrument was enlarged by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1963 and again between 1970 and 1975, during which time more than half of the original instrument was removed. The present instrument consists of 189 ranks and 10,647 pipes. It is the largest organ in the city of Washington and one of the 20 largest organs in the world.

Michael McCarthy is the Director of Music, Scott Dettra is the Cathedral Organist, and Jeremy Filsell is the Artist-in-Residence. The carillonneur is Edward M. Nassor. Former organists and choirmasters include Edgar Priest, Robert George Barrow, Paul Callaway, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Douglas Major, Bruce Neswick, James Litton, and Erik Wm. Suter.

The resident symphonic chorus of Washington National Cathedral is the Cathedral Choral Society.

Last resting place

Washington National Cathedral and its columbarium are the last resting places of several notable American citizens:

  • Larz Anderson, businessman, diplomat
  • Thomas John Claggett, first Episcopal bishop of Maryland.
  • Joseph E. Davies, diplomat, presidential adviser. He gave a stained-glass window in the Cathedral in honor of his Mother, Rachel Davies (Rahel o Fôn)
  • George Dewey, United States Navy admiral
  • Philip Frohman, cathedral architect, following the death of Bodley
  • Alfred Harding (bishop), second bishop of Washington
  • Cordell Hull, United States Secretary of State
  • Helen Keller (ashes), author, lecturer, advocate for the blind and deaf
  • Frank B. Kellogg, U.S. senator, Secretary of State
  • Anne Sullivan Macy (ashes), tutor and friend of Helen Keller, first woman interred here
  • A.S. Mike Monroney, U.S. representative, senator
  • Isabel Weld Perkins, author, wife of Larz Anderson
  • Norman Prince, fighter pilot, member of the Lafayette Escadrille flying corps
  • Henry Yates Satterlee, first bishop of Washington
  • Leo Sowerby, composer, church musician
  • Stuart Symington, U.S. senator, presidential candidate
  • Henry Vaughan, architect, associate of Bodley
  • Edith Wilson, First Lady of the United States and second wife of Woodrow Wilson
  • Woodrow Wilson, 28th U.S. president. Wilson's tomb bears variants on the Seal of the President of the United States and the coat of arms of Princeton University. Wilson is the only American president buried in the District of Columbia. His grandson, Francis Sayre, Jr., later became dean of the Cathedral.

References in popular culture

  • The cathedral is the setting of Margaret Truman's novel Murder at the National Cathedral.
  • It is the location of Mrs. Landingham's funeral and President Bartlet's resulting tirade against God in the second season finale of The West Wing, "Two Cathedrals".
  • The cathedral close, the area in and around the cathedral, is alluded to often, but rather vaguely, in the movie Along Came a Spider.
  • Tom Clancy's novel Executive Orders includes a memorial service for the late president Rodger Durling, his wife, most of the United States Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Supreme Court that takes place at this location. In an infamous scene, a soldier bearing the president's casket slips on some ice on the front steps and suffers crushed legs.
  • In Elizabeth Hand's novel Winterlong, it appears as the "Engulfed Cathedral".
  • It is a setting in Dan Brown's 2009 novel The Lost Symbol.
  • It served as an architectural inspiration for Keep Venture in Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series


  • Marjorie Hunt, The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral (Smithsonian, 1999).
  • Step by Step and Stone by Stone: The History of the Washington National Cathedral (WNC, 1990).
  • A Guide to the Washington Cathedral (National Cathedral Association, 1945).
  • David Hein, "For God and Country: Two Historic Churches in the Nation's Capital," Anglican and Episcopal History 56 (March 1987): 123-26.
  • David Hein, Noble Powell and the Episcopal Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2007). Chapter three covers the deanship of the Very Revd Noble C. Powell, who was also Warden of the College of Preachers.
  • Peter W. Williams, Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  • Cathedral Age (magazine).

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