The Service of Thanksgiving and Remembrance for Matthew Shepard at Washington National Cathedral will be webcast on the cathedral’s website on Friday, October 26. It is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. EDT, but webcasts of the cathedral’s services often begin earlier in order to include musical preludes. The service in the cathedral is open to the public, all are invited. Following the service, Shepard’s ashes will be interred in the cathedral’s crypt in a private service.
The cathedral typically publishes the order of its services on its website on the day of the service. Conspirare, an internationally recognized choir based in Austin, Texas, has announced that they will perform selections from Considering Matthew Shepard during the service. They will also perform a 45-minute program in the nave at the end of the service while the private interment takes place in the crypt. The public is invited to remain in the nave in reflection and prayer during this time.
As I explained in an earlier post, Shepard’s remains will join those of over 200 others in the cathedral, but his will be the first of a national figure not closely connected to the cathedral’s life in fifty years.
The service will be led by the bishop of Washington, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde and the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson, former bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay man elected a bishop of The Episcopal Church.
While the twenty-year delay between Shepard’s death on October 12, 1998, and the placement of his remains in the cathedral is unusual, it is not unprecedented. Eighty-two years transpired between the death of the Right Reverend Thomas J. Claggett in 1816 and their interment on the newly purchased cathedral grounds in 1898. Claggett was the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. The Diocese of Washington was partitioned from the Maryland diocese in 1895. Admiral George Dewey’s body was also moved to the cathedral from Arlington National Cemetery nine years after his 1917 death.
In the early years of the cathedral’s life, only full-body burials were considered and the cathedral was limited by law to four burials per year. At this time, interment at the cathedral was a closely guarded honor. Presently, the cathedral publicizes two interment locations, the columbarium in its crypt, and the memorial garden in the garth on the cathedral’s north side. While applications for interment still must be approved by the cathedral’s dean and chapter, this suggests a more open approach.
On National Coming Out Day, October 11, Washington National Cathedral announced that the remains of Matthew Shepard would be interred in its crypt following a public service of thanksgiving and remembrance on October 26, 2018. Shepard died on October 12, 1998, from severe injuries sustained in what many believe was an anti-gay hate crime. He has become a symbol and inspiration for the cause of LGBTQ equality.
Officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, the cathedral is the chief church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the ceremonial seat of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. The cathedral has always offered itself to the nation as the symbolic center of its religious life, or in the words of its current tagline, “a spiritual home for the nation.”
Part of its ministry is to be a place of burial for notable figures in national and church life. Since the cathedral’s site was purchased in 1898, the remains of over 200 Americans have been interred there. Most received this honor because of their direct role in the cathedral’s life. They include clergy, musicians, artists, architects, engineers, and benefactors. Others, including President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral George Dewey, and humanitarian Helen Keller, were figures of national significance. Shepard will be the first such national figure interred in the cathedral since Keller’s funeral fifty years ago.
“America’s Westminster Abbey”
The reasons for this fifty-year gap can be found in the cathedral’s changing role in national life. In my research for book on the representation of religion in Washington, D.C., I have discovered that as Episcopalians sought to build the cathedral in the early twentieth-century, its promoters envisioned it as a resting place for America’s noble dead. Accordingly, they called it “America’s Westminster Abbey” and actively sought for famous Americans to be buried there.
This yielded several prominent burials, including President Wilson’s in 1924 and the removal of the body of Admiral Dewey from Arlington National Cemetery to the cathedral in 1925. Only with Wilson’s burial did large number of visitors first come to cathedral, which then consisted of only a single crypt chapel.
Businessman-turned-bishop James E. Freeman (in office, 1923-43) was particularly zealous in seeking interment of the famous. Soon after President Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, Freeman urged Roosevelt, a loyal Episcopalian, to designate the cathedral as his final resting place. The president rebuffed the offer. The day he learned that former secretary of state and Nobel peace laureate Frank Kellogg was being buried in the cathedral, Roosevelt took time to set down his own plans for outdoor burial at his Hyde Park, New York, home (Geoffrey Ward, Before the Trumpet, 1-3). Freeman’s efforts led Time magazine to report that he was known as the “body-snatcher” (May 9, 1932). The heirs of Thomas Edison, Jane Addams, and Andrew Mellon also declined Freeman’s offers. Others gladly accepted them. The cathedral shelters the remains of three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Kellogg (d. 1937), secretary of state Cordell Hull (d. 1953) and international churchman John R. Mott (d. 1955).
Helen Keller’s 1968 interment was arranged long in advance. When her equally famous teacher Anne Sullivan Macy died in 1936, Freeman offered the cathedral as her final resting place to her heirs. Keller wished to for her own remains to rest with those of her beloved teacher and so her remains were placed in the cathedral’s private columbarium following a public service in 1968.
In 1980 a plaque honoring them both was installed near the entrance to the columbarium.
From Burials to Funerals
After World War II the cathedral gradually grew larger in size. The main floor of its interior was completed in 1976. The completed structure was dedicated in 1990. As a large building that sought to be a church for the nation, the cathedral hosted an increasing number of funerals for national figures including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1959 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1969. This ministry has continued to the present, as the recent funeral of Senator John McCain bears witness.
The cathedral’s place in the landscape and ceremonial life of Washington secured, its interior richly decorated with representations of Christian and American history, burials of national figures were no longer important for securing the cathedral’s national status. Also, in most cases famous Americans were like Franklin Roosevelt, they preferred to be buried close to home, often in outside cemeteries. McCain’s body left the cathedral to be buried with his classmates in Annapolis, similarly the bodies of presidents Reagan and Ford left the cathedral to return to their home states.
Nonetheless, the decision of Shepard’s parents to lay their son to rest in the cathedral shows that in exceptional cases, Washington National Cathedral can still serve as a place of national sepulcher. It was precisely because the usual American practice of outdoor burial in a home town did not serve in their situation that they chose the cathedral. His parents explained to CNN that when Shepard was killed in 1998, they were living overseas. They did not want to bury his remains halfway around the world. They also expected his grave may become a place of pilgrimage and did not want it to be “a nuisance to other families in a cemetery.”
For the Shepards, the identity of the cathedral as an Episcopal church was also important. Matthew was an Episcopalian and he felt welcomed and accepted by his church in Wyoming. The Shepards have also found Episcopal leaders such as Gene Robinson, who was consecrated as the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop in 2003, to be important partners in the work of the Mathew Shepard Foundation. “It’s reassuring to know he now will rest in a sacred spot where folks can come to reflect on creating a safer, kinder world” said his mother Judy Shepard in a statement.
Such a vision of peace and love has long been part of the cathedral’s ministry, but if and how Shepard will be publicly memorialized remains to be determined. With the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s body, which is in a sarcophagus in the nave, the remains of most of the cathedral’s dead are housed in the crypt or subcrypt, outside of public view. This will also be the case with Shepard’s. Most of the cathedral’s dead do not have memorials in the public sections of the church. Others have tablets or sculptures at various places in the church. Most, such as Keller’s, are simple inscriptions. Some are linked thematically to particular windows or other works of art as in the case of the “Universal Peace” window that memorializes Secretary of State Kellogg.
One intriguing possibility for Shepard are stained glass windows dedicated to him or the cause of LGBTQ equality. For many years the windows of the cathedral were complete. In September 2017, however, the cathedral’s leadership removed windows dedicated to the Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These windows were located in a particularly prominent and accessible location, at floor-level, near main entrance to the nave, next to Wilson’s tomb. A memorial to Shepard and the causes he has come to represent in this location could indeed become a place of pilgrimage.
There are many forms that such windows might take. Shepard has been the subject of many works of art including “The Ascension of Matthew Shepard” by Carl Grauer. This portrait is striking for its use of conventional religious imagery to honor Shepard. The memorialization of Shepard is a challenging project. He came to fame because he was a victim, but he is honored by those who in the words of his mother seek a “safer, kinder world.” His interment in the cathedral gives it a new opportunity to advance this goal.
The annual Roman Catholic mass marking the beginning of the U.S. Supreme Court’s term proceeded yesterday without some of its usual leaders. Most years, the archbishop of Washington presides and a bishop from another diocese preaches. But yesterday, Washington’s auxiliary bishop Mario Dorsonville presided in the place of Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Monsignor Peter Vaghi preached in place of the originally scheduled Bishop John Barres of Rockville Centre.
Both Wuerl and Barres were criticized last month by a Pennsylvania grand jury for their handling of sexual abuse allegations while they were bishops of dioceses in that state. The accusations against Wuerl were more extensive and he has recently journeyed to Rome to discuss his resignation with Pope Francis. Today, the Washington Post reported new evidence suggesting Wuerl’s knowledge of sexual misconduct by his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Still, the liturgy provided an important opportunity for Catholics and others to engage in civil religious piety and protest. Katherine Frey of the Washington Post captured an image of a Virginia woman kissing the hand of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as he entered the cathedral. Her colleague Julia Zauzmer reported on others attempting to hand pink “I believe Christine Blasey” buttons to worshipers.
Monsignor Vaghi, the substitute preacher, is the long time chaplain of the John Carroll society which sponsors the liturgy, former pastor of St. Patrick’s Washington’s oldest Catholic church and current pastor of Little Flower parish in suburban Bethesda. His sermon, as reported by Crux, urged the need for national unity, the role of Holy Spirit in achieving this, and the “self-evident” divinely ordained truths of natural law on which the country was founded. It was a classic uniting text of American civil religion offered at a tumultuous moment in the life of the nation and its highest court.
Members of the supreme court attending the liturgy were Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer. The recently retired Anthony Kennedy also attended the service. His embattled would-be successor Brett Kavanaugh was not seen there. The Red Mass takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for votive masses of the Holy Spirit. The tradition of such masses marking the beginning of judicial terms dates to the fourteenth century, but the D.C. tradition only to 1939. Over the years, various denominations have offered special services for government officials in Washington, but the Red Mass is the only annual service that still claims a prominent place in Washington’s civil religious rituals. While Roberts, Thomas, and Kennedy are Roman Catholic, the service succeeds in claiming the attendance of non-Catholic leaders as well including Sessions, a United Methodist, and Breyer, who is Jewish.
On Sunday at 10 a.m., St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. will host its annual Red Mass. This Roman Catholic service is a votive mass of the Holy Spirit for members of the judiciary and the legal profession. It takes its name from the red vestments worn by clergy for masses of the Holy Spirit. One has been held in Washington annually since 1939, but both its place and its timing has changed.
The president of the United States does not usually attend the service. But on Sunday, October 2, 2005, President George W. Bush attended with the newly confirmed chief justice, John Roberts.
Since Judge Brett Kavanaugh is both a practicing Catholic and a member of the Washington judiciary, I expected he has attended many times. If the Senate had already confirmed him, I’d expected to see President Trump joining him at the cathedral to celebrate his confirmation. This would have been the third D.C. church Trump had visited for services as president. (The other two are St. John’s Episcopal Church and Washington National Cathedral.) As it is, it is doubtful that the president will attend.
The Red Mass tradition dates to the middle ages but was first brought to the United States only in 1928 with a liturgy held at St. Andrew’s Church in New York City. The Washington tradition began in January 1939 at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of the Catholic University of America. As Thomas Tweed explains in America’s Church, the dean of the university’s law school organized the liturgy in conjunction with the beginning of the new congressional term. The honored guests were members of congress and the executive branch more than they were members of the judiciary. Harry Truman attended when he was a senator and again as vice president in 1945.
The liturgy was moved from the National Shrine to St. Matthew’s Cathedral at the beginning of the beginning of the Eisenhower administration in 1953. At the time, the shrine consisted of only the crypt church, while St. Matthew’s had long been a completed building and became the cathedral of the newly created Archdiocese of Washington in 1940. It was located several blocks from the White House, around the corner from the National Presbyterian Church which President Eisenhower attended on the morning of his inauguration and in which he was baptized on February 1, 1953. The first Red Mass at St. Matthew’s was organized by the John Carroll Society and held two weeks later, on February 15. Eisenhower attended the service the following year.
The liturgy continued to be held in January or February another two decades. On January 26, 1975, President Gerald Ford attended and heard a sermon strongly objecting to the legalization of abortion by the supreme court a year earlier. The drama of the situation generated some controversy and subsequently the service was moved to its present position on the Sunday prior to the opening of the supreme court’s new term on the first Monday in October. The opening of judicial terms has been the customary time of the liturgy for centuries. The Washington service’s move to that date, however, is linked to the Catholic church’s objection to Roe v. Wade.
I’ve been pursing the history of religion in America for almost thirty years. It is high time to offer a blog of that journey.
On our road trips across the U.S., particularly between Alabama and New England, my wife, Martha, and I often “chase churches.” A phrase we coined one memorable day in Petersburg, Virginia, as we spotted one spire after another in the distance and went zipping along the city streets to discover and photograph them.
Of course church buildings rarely move. To say we “chase” them might seem odd. But in the thrill of the hunt, it does seem like you are chasing them. And they do disappear.
A careful look at the central area of Northwest Washington shows the prominent place of churches. At least twelve identifiable churches are located between Massachusetts Ave. (running horizontally across the center of the frame) and Pennsylvania Ave. (along the bottom).
Of these only four still stand. (Two are at the eastern end of the area, St. Mary’s (Catholic) and Fifth Presbyterian (now housing the Chinese Community Church. Two Episcopal churches are at the western end, Epiphany and Ascension (now Ascension and St. Agnes).) The congregations of two others (New York Avenue Presbyterian and First Congregational) have new buildings on the same site. The rest of the buildings have disappeared and been replaced by other structures or parks.
Still other churches belong in this 1892 view, but were not included by the artist. These include Luther Place Memorial Church and Vermont Avenue Christian Church (now Mt. Olivet Lutheran).
Chasing churches requires a lot of detective work both on the ground and in the archive. I hope you’ll follow my journey.