• U.S.

Religion: Washington’s Church

5 minute read

Mankind was never so happily inspired as when it made a cathedral. —Robert Louis Stevenson

Practicality and a Puritan bias toward plainness have made the white clapboard church, not the soaring stone spire, the nation’s quintessential symbol of worship. Yet some Americans prefer to honor God in grandeur. One was George Washington, who dreamed of “a great church for national purposes in the capital city.” It was only a century later that members of his Episcopal Church began making plans to build a towering Gothic cathedral atop the highest point of land in the District of Columbia.

Now, after 83 years, the nave and side aisles of the Washington Cathedral have finally been completed. To celebrate the achievement, Queen Elizabeth II and President Ford will dedicate the building known officially as the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. “On the Fourth of July America will celebrate her separation from Great Britain,” says Dean Francis B. Sayre Jr., 61, Woodrow Wilson’s grandson and a driving force behind the completion of the cathedral. “Then four days later, as there ought to be, there will be this celebration of our reconciliation.” The dedication will include festive music by Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.

The Washington visitor with time to wander in the cathedral this summer will find continual surprises. More than a thousand kneeling cushions, each in elaborately individualized needlepoint. Stone tributes not just to biblical heroes but to Sören Kierkegaard, David Livingstone, Albert Schweitzer and Jane Addams. Even a carved snake in the choir with a caricatured head of Hitler. A space-age window in which a sliver of a moon rock is encased. On the roof, growling gargoyles, and on the lawn, an oversized gilded bronze statue of Washington astride a horse.

The newest glory of the cathedral is its third and final rose window (see color), which was installed earlier this year. The window, 26 ft. in diameter, is the work of Virginia Artist Rowan Le-Compte, 51, who was enthralled during a chance visit to the cathedral when he was 14 and decided to teach himself the techniques of stained glass. His subsequent career as an artist included many stained-glass commissions, and in 1971 the cathedral assigned him the rose window. Because it is deeply recessed and in shade much of the time, LeCompte used chipped nuggets of thick glass designed to pick up and transmit light all day long. Realizing that individual figures are lost to viewers far below, he used abstract forms to depict the creation theme. The result is one of the most distinctive rose windows ever designed.

Despite this month’s celebration, the cathedral is not really complete. Stairwells and crannies are embellished by innumerable carvings, tapestries and decorative windows, but more remain to be installed. Outside, the final phase is the erection of twin 234-ft. towers on the west end, meant to complement the central Gloria in Excelsis Tower, completed in 1964 and bedecked with 396 angel heads. If all goes well, the entire structure will be finished ahead of schedule in 1980.

Washington Cathedral, the only traditional Gothic cathedral currently under construction in the U.S., could also be the last to be completed. The even larger* Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, also Episcopal, is much further from completion. Begun in 1892, it still lacks three towers and two transepts. In 1967 then Bishop Horace Donegan decreed that the building, which stands on Amsterdam Avenue at the edge of Harlem, would remain unfinished until “the despair and anguish of our disadvantaged people have been relieved.” The present bishop, Paul Moore Jr., however, thinks that the cathedral should be finished, and he may launch a fund-raising effort.

No Apologies. The Washingtonians, by contrast, have pressed ahead. The project has already cost $50 million, and it will require at least $12 million more. By Washington-style accounting, that works out to be little more than half of a B-l bomber or a few miles of interstate highway. Dean Sayre, who often uses his carved Gothic stone pulpit to promote social justice, makes no apologies for the expense. “You’re not competing with the poor for a dollar,” he has said. “You’re building something in order to use it. The instrument and the using of the instrument are equally important.”

One reason for urgency is that cathedral artisans are a dying breed. No two stones in the edifice are alike. Hand-crafted from Indiana Limestone, they are put in place by the 25 skilled stonemasons now on the site. Then there are the eleven stone carvers. The occasional quick temper of the master of the group, Roger Morigi, 68, is immortalized in a carving by a colleague: a Morigi-like head has an atomic bomb cloud forming over it. The stone carvers work under the alert eye of John Fanfani, 52, who is the son and nephew of two carvers who came from Italy in the 1920s to devote their careers to the cathedral. According to a legend, a passer-by once asked one of the early carvers why he was working so painstakingly on the back of a figure, since it would never be seen after it was installed. He replied, in the great medieval tradition of cathedral builders, “God will see it.”

*In square feet of floor space, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is the largest church in the world. Next come the Seville Cathedral, St. John’s, and the cathedrals in Liverpool, Milan and Washington.

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