On Thursday, the Vatican announced the appointment of the first African American as archbishop of Washington, Wilton Gregory. For the past fourteen years he has been archbishop of Atlanta. In its report on Gregory’s appointment, the Washington Post noted that while nationally African Americans only make up 3% of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Washington archdiocese they comprise 13%.
As in other denominations in Washington, initially African Americans worshiped as miniorities within white-controlled parishes. The first Catholic church in the capital specifically for African Americans was established by free African American Catholics in 1858. Initially it was named for Blessed Martin de Porres, but it was renamed for St. Augustine of Hippo, the North African doctor of the church in 1873-74.
In downtown Washington, the church’s first location is marked by a handsome metal plaque. This is the only such marker for a vanished church that I can think of in downtown D.C. Pictures of several other destroyed churches buildings appear on the interpretive signs along the many walking trails developed by Cultural Tourism DC. They do not, however, suggest the permanency of this marker.
The Victorian Gothic building north of L Street on 15th St NW was completed in 1876 to designs by Francis Baldwin, a Baltimore architect who divided his career between Catholic churches and buildings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. Perhaps his most prominent church is in Savannah, Georgia, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist designed in a French Gothic style.
When St. Augustine’s downtown building was razed in 1947 to make way for a new building for the Washington Post, the parish was merged with St. Paul’s Church, about one mile north on 15th St. at the base of Meridian Hill. The name St. Augustine’s was dropped from use at that time, but revived in 1961 when the parish was renamed St. Paul and St. Augustine. In 1982 the parish name revised again to be St. Augustine in recognition of its rule as a vibrant center of African American Catholic life. It remains so today.
Around the corner from the marker, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church still stands on M Street. With stubborn heroism, its congregation has held on its building and remained downtown to exercise its role as the “National Cathedral of African Methodism.” (The building was once named to the annual list of the 11 Most Endangered Buildings in the United States by the National Trust for Historic Preservation). A longtime member of that congregation once told me that they missed their neighbors at St. Augustine’s. At the head of a glass-lined ally, the St. Augustine’s marker is a good reminder of the vanished landscape of nineteenth century Washington.
Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association concerning the forty-foot tall the Peace Cross at a traffic junction in Bladensburg, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C.
The cross is a memorial to American solders who died in World War I. It was completed in 1925 and is now maintained with government funds. The Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled that this makes it unconstitutional because it “excessively entangles the government in religion.” While the Bladensburg cross was reportedly directly inspired by a wooden cross that marked the grave of an American solider in France, the name “Peace Cross” is shared with another, older, Washington-area monument.
On October 23, 1898, President William McKinley attended the dedication of a Peace Cross marking the end of the Spanish-American War. It was erected by Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee on the newly purchased grounds of Washington National Cathedral. It was the first monument on that site.
The inscription on the cathedral Peace Cross states that its purpose was “to mark the founding of the Cathedral of SS Peter and Paul.” It also bears a petition from the litany in the Book of Common Prayer, “That it may please Thee to give to all Nations Unity Peace and Concord, We beseech Thee to hear us Good Lord.”
While the cross does not explicitly reference the Spanish-American War except to say it was erected in “the historic year 1898,” its link to the end of the war makes it one of America’s first cross-shaped war memorials. It probably influenced the erection and naming of the Bladensburg cross seven miles to the east.
[Washington National Cathedral is owned and maintained by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, and thus is not involved in the constitutional questions before the Supreme Court.]
For sixty-seven years, Washington’s most prominent annual religious-political event has occurred not in house of worship but in a hotel ballroom. Yet the site of the Washington Hilton, where the National Prayer Breakfast has been held for at least the last three decades, was almost the home not of a hotel, but a of church.
In February 1953, when the newly-inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower attended the first such breakfast, the site of today’s Hilton was known as Temple Heights. It was one of the largest undeveloped sites remaining in central Washington and occupied a commanding hillside location at the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, NW. Near the top of the hill stood Oak Lawn, a mansion built in 1873. The rest of the nine-and-a-half-acre site was grass and woods.
Just a few days before the first prayer breakfast, Eisenhower had joined the National Presbyterian Church. The congregation dated back to the earliest years of the capital, but had received this name from its denomination only in 1947 in an effort claim a larger role for Presbyterians in American life. The fact that the new Republican president joined the congregation was a boost to Presbyterian pride. Two years later, congregation leaders began an earnest effort to secure Temple Heights for a new, landmark church.
National Presbyterian’s existing building was a Romanesque revival church completed in 1889 at Connecticut Avenue and N Street, NW. It was handsome and just around the corner from St. Matthew’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. It was, however, no rival to the mammoth national churches being built by Episcopalians and Roman Catholics (Washington National Cathedral and the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception). It also lacked the educational and recreational spaces of new suburban churches as well as their plentiful parking. Many felt that a new building was urgently needed.
Like the founding of the prayer breakfast, the drive to build a new monumental church was part of a Cold War emphasis on the link between religion and American national identity. Few denominations saw themselves as more central to American history than Presbyterians and Temple Heights was a seemingly perfect location for a landmark church.
The architect’s sketch of the proposed building shows it looming like a medieval cathedral over the intersection of Connecticut and Florida Avenues, separated from the capital’s grit and politics by a verdant forest, but drawing many to worship in its walls. Such a church would clearly give Presbyterians a fitting platform for ministry in the nation’s capital.
The building’s clean, modern lines suggested the 1950s’ most famous cathedral project–the new cathedral at Coventry, England. As in Basil Spence’s design for Coventry, the windows of the nave were angled toward the altar to provide it with dramatic light. The clean, modern lines also echoed Coventry and bespoke the International Style and the machine age. But Presbyterian church’s massing owed more to the Gothic revival, with pitched roof and a tall tower next to the nave. As at Riverside Church in New York City, the church tower took the form of a skyscraper. From the hillside location, the upper floors of an office tower on the south side of the nave would have had clear views of the Washington Monument.
Congregation leaders worked through the year to secure the needed funds to buy and develop on the expensive site, but in the end were unable to do so. The Presbyterian proposal joined a long list of unfulfilled dreams for Temple Heights including a Masonic temple and a twenty-one building glass and concrete complex designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The lower portion of the site was sold off for office buildings in 1956 and the Hilton was built on the upper portion in 1965. Eventually, in 1969, National Presbyterian opened a new large modern church of modern design on a less prominent site on Nebraska Avenue near American University.
With the National Prayer Breakfast, Temple Heights is still a site of national religious assembly and influence, though not religious architectural presence. In American religious life the influence of religious groups is often not linked to their architectural place in the landscape.
President Trump altered his Christmas plans and remained in D.C. to deal with the government shutdown. Mrs. Trump flew back to D.C. from Florida on Christmas Eve afternoon. At 10 p.m. they attended service of Holy Eucharist at Washington National Cathedral. It was Trump’s third visit as president to the cathedral and his first for a regularly scheduled public service. They were seated by Dean Randy Hollerith immediately before the dean welcomed the congregation to the service.
In her sermon, the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, challenged worshipers to take their place in God’s redemptive story and to listen for the word that God was saying to them in this service tonight. She quoted contemporary Christian author Rachel Held Evans and the German Jesuit Alfred Delp. Her most extensive quotations, however, were from the African American theologian and mystic, Howard Thurman.
She began the heart of her sermon quoting Thurman, “Celebrating Christmas affirms our solidarity with the whole human race in its long struggle to become more humane and to reveal the divinity in which all humanity shares.” Citing Rachel Held Evans, she insisted that our lives would find their meaning in the biggest story we can imagine and place ourselves in. This could be “nationalism, follow your bliss, or he who dies with the most toys wins,” but it should be God’s story of redemption.
The story of Christmas has “social implications,” she insisted and mentioned that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were forced to flee and take refuge in a foreign country. But as for what those social implications were for those listening to her, she left that to them to discover. Whatever God was calling them to do, she challenged them to “be instruments of God’s love for love’s sake.”
The cathedral’s video stream did not focus on the Trumps or other members of the congregation, but it did show them both the President and the First Lady receiving communion and singing “Silent Night.”
The video of the service and the service leaflet are available on YouTube
[UPDATES: Late Christmas afternoon The Washington Post published a story on the sermon (click here). NPR also broadcast an interview with Bishop Budde that afternoon on All Things Considered (click here).]
There are millions of things more important than the church going customs of the president of the United States, especially at present. But since everything the president does is charted by someone, it is worth noting that President Trump’s announcement that, due to the government shutdown, he will stay in Washington for Christmas will alter his custom of going to church on Christmas Eve.
The past two years, Mr. Trump and his wife have attended a Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church of Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida. This 1925 Gothic revival church is the same church in which they were married. They have also attended this church at Easter.
In Washington, to my knowledge, the Trumps have attended regularly-scheduled services only once. Following Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the president attended a Sunday service on September 3 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Lafayette Square to mark the national day of prayer he had declared.
St. John’s is the unofficial church of the presidents and the closest to the White House. It has been visited by every president since it opened in 1816. Recently, it was the Washington church that both President Bush and President Obama attended most frequently. None of these three recent presidents was an Episcopalian when they were elected, but all found Episcopal churches most convenient and appropriate to their churchgoing in office.
Mr. Trump was raised a Presbyterian and Mrs. Trump a Roman Catholic. One may hypothesize that like many other Protestant-Catholic couples, they find the Episcopal Church to be an appropriate common church home. Attending churches well known to the Secret Service, also is surely a convenience to the government.
This year, Mrs. Trump and her son are already in Florida. She will return to Washington to spend Christmas with the president. Given that Washington church attendance would require last-minute adjustments for security, I won’t be surprised if the Trumps skip church this Christmas eve.
In the age of television, the world has watched the funerals of nine U.S. presidents. These funerals had many stages, including, rites in the city of death, lying in state in Capitol Rotunda, a church service in Washington, and rites at the place of burial. For George H.W. Bush and his two immediate predecessors in death, the key stage was the funeral at Washington National Cathedral. At two hours and nine minutes, Bush’s service was a full forty minutes longer than either of theirs, and four times longer than the 1969 service at the cathedral for President Eisenhower. (Details below)
One reason for the greater length of the cathedral funerals for Reagan, Ford, and Bush is that they have included eulogies. Former president Dwight Eisenhower was eulogized by President Richard Nixon in the Capitol Rotunda as was former Herbert Hoover by president Lyndon Johnson. There were no eulogies or even homilies the church services for Hoover and Eisenhower.
During ceremonies in the Rotunda, many attendees must stand. They are subject to fatigue. At the ceremony for Gerald Ford in December 2006, Michigan congressman William Broomfield collapsed. Delivering the eulogies in a church presents a more comfortable situation, though with the consequence of more intimately mixing the civic and the religious.
Nixon’s funeral included five addresses. There were four tributes by friends, family, or national leaders and one homily by a clergyman. The same pattern has been followed in subsequent services. Bush’s funeral was longer than Reagan’s and Ford’s not because of a greater number of addresses, but because of their greater average length and the inclusion of longer scripture readings, additional prayers, and music.
The three recent funerals have included more music including offerings by military and ecclesiastical groups and, in the case of Reagan and Ford, by famous musicians. They have also been conducted not only in an Episcopal cathedral, but by Episcopal clergy and according to Episcopal liturgies. While this is no surprise for Episcopalians Ford and Bush, Reagan was at the time of his death a Presbyterian. Eisenhower was also a Presbyterian, and when he was buried from the cathedral his service was led primarily by a Presbyterian minister according to the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship.
Today the Episcopal Church calls for more participation by the congregation in funeral than it did in former times. At Hoover’s Episcopal funeral in 1964, the congregation was asked to stand, sit, kneel, recite the Lord’s Prayer, and respond to other prayers with, “Amen.” At Bush’s funeral the congregation was not asked to kneel but they were was invited to sing two hymns, recite acclamations after scripture readings, participate in a litany, and recite the Apostles’ Creed as well as respond to the prayers with an “Amen.” Much of this stems from the new Book of Common Prayer adopted in 1979 as part of the liturgical reform movement that also reshaped Roman Catholic worship and that of many other denominations. One effect of these changes has been to lengthen the service.
It is tempting to hypothesize that the war-time funerals of Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson were simpler out of deference to the many Americans who were loosing loved ones in the service of their country. It is probably truer to say that American funeral custom has changed. While singer Aretha Franklin’s day-long funeral in August was exceptional, it is indicative of a trend among some Americans.
I remember that when I was a child, my father took pride in saying that the Book of Common Prayer provided the same funeral for “king and commoner.” Comparing the Bush funeral to those in my local parish church, that is still true. It is simply that kings, or in this case presidents, have friends who are senators, prime ministers, and award-winning musicians.
Made for Television
While the funerals of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and Johnson were all well televised according to the capacity of their day, Nixon’s 1994 California funeral was the first to be carefully crafted for television in the era of the 24/7 news cycle. Reagan’s funeral a decade later did the same, but on a much larger scale. It set a new standard.
Some traditional aspects of Reagan’s funeral, such as the horse-drawn procession, were not used by Ford and Bush. Other aspects such as the more elaborate church service were. From ancient times until the age of television, slow processions were a major way the public participated in funerals. They remained so through the mid-twentieth century for the funerals of Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. But as media have involved, so has the means of public participation. Today televised indoor services receive the most attention.
Length of Presidential Funerals in Churches in Washington, D.C.
Six of the nine televised presidential funerals have involved a service at a D.C. church with the body present. The length of the church funeral given below is from the moment the clergy receive the body outside the church to when the body exits the church. It excludes outdoor military honors.
(The timings are based on videos of the services provided at the links below. An exception is Eisenhower’s. I have not yet located a recording of the complete service, so the time is based on information provided by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.)
1963, November 25, John F. Kennedy, St. Matthew’s Cathedral, pontifical low requiem mass, eulogy by the Most Reverend Philip M. Hannan, 1 hour 5 minutes.
1969, March 31, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Washington National Cathedral, funeral service, 30 minutes.
1973, January 25, Lyndon B. Johnson, National City Christian Church, funeral service including addresses by W. Marvin Watson and the Reverend George Davis, 54 minutes.
2004, June 11, Ronald W. Reagan, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Brian Mulroney, and the Reverend John C. Danforth, 1 hour, 30 minutes.
2007, January 2, Gerald R. Ford, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite I including addresses by George H.W. Bush, Henry A. Kissinger, Thomas J. Brokaw, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Robert Certain, 1 hour 29 minutes
2018, December 5, George H.W. Bush, Washington National Cathedral, Burial of the Dead, Rite II including addresses by Jon Meacham, Brian Mulroney, Alan K. Simpson, George W. Bush, and the Reverend Dr. Russell Levenson, Jr., 2 hours, 9 minutes.F
Length of Funerals Elsewhere
The funerals of Hoover, Truman, and Nixon each included a televised religious service, but not from a Washington church.
1964, 21 October, Herbert C. Hoover, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, New York, New York, Burial of the Dead, President Johnson attended the service which occurred before Hoover was taken to Washington to lie in state. Hoover lay in repose before and after the service, so unlike the others the length of the service does not include a procession into and out of the church, 15 minutes.
1972, 28 December, Harry S Truman, Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri, indoor funeral service, 39 minutes. This was a private family service. President Nixon had flown to Independence to pay his respects to Mrs. Truman earlier and did not attend the service nor the official memorial service at Washington National Cathedral on January 5 which was attended by other government officials and foreign dignitaries. I do not believe that service was televised. According to the New York Times it included an address by the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., and lasted 40 minutes.
1994, April 27, Richard M. Nixon, Presidential Library and Museum, Yorba Linda, California, funeral service including addresses by Henry Kissinger, Robert Dole, Pete Wilson, Bill Clinton, and Billy Graham. While the burial service followed immediately at a slightly different location on the same site, the portion corresponding to the church services above was 1 hour 8 minutes.
When President Donald Trump stood silently during the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed last week, perhaps he was thinking, “I should be home by now.” It would have been a reasonable thought.
The funeral of George H.W. Bush was the longest in the history of televised presidential funerals. It was forty minutes longer than either Ronald Reagan’s or Gerald Ford’s and four times as long as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s.
I’m referring here to the portion of the multi-day funeral conducted inside Washington National Cathedral. From the time his body was received by the bishops at the door of the cathedral until it was borne out through the same doors, two hours and nine minutes elapsed. (I’ll share details on the length of televised presidential funerals in an upcoming post.)
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited the congregation to say the creed one hour and forty-six minutes into the service. The longest previous funeral was Reagan’s at an hour and a half. Bush’s funeral was not longer because of any big difference. It had the same number of tributes as Reagan’s and a similar array of music. But a number of little things combined to make it longer. Among other things, two opening collects were used, not one, the scripture readings were longer, the average length of the addresses was longer, and of course the creed was recited. (Eisenhower’s funeral also included the creed.)
Bush’s leisurely funeral by no means explains the president’s general lack of a receptive expression during the service. Often people sit with friends at funerals. If they do not, they try to make friends with those they are near, especially if they are politicians. As has been widely noted neither the president nor some of his companions in the first row seemed interested in doing this. No doubt it was a long time to sit following someone else’s schedule and feeling alone.
This afternoon the service leaflet for George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral at Washington National Cathedral was published. The most notable differences in liturgical structure between it and the funerals at Washington National Cathedral for Presidents Reagan and Ford and Senator McCain are in the place of the tributes.
At Reagan and Ford’s funeral they came together before the Gospel reading but after all other scripture readings. At McCain’s funeral they came after the opening rites but before the opening collect and the scripture readings.
At Bush’s the first (by historian Jon Meacham) will follow the first reading, the second and third (by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Senator Alan Simpson) follow the second reading. An anthem will then be sung by Ronan Tynan and the Armed Forces Chorus before the fourth tribute by President George W. Bush. This seems better to me than the arrangement at McCain’s where the politically charged eulogies in the first half of the service seemed to many to overshadow the Christian funeral that followed. Mr. Meacham happened to be the guest preacher at the cathedral this past Sunday. It would not be surprising if his remarks were rooted in the text from Isaiah that precedes his tribute.
Reagan’s funeral included participation by Jewish, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic clergy as well as Episcopal clergy. At Bush’s as at Ford’s only all the clergy leading the service are Episcopalians. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry will open the service and offer the final blessing.
I have not confirmed it, yet but I will not be surprised if this is not the first presidential funeral in which a presiding bishop has participated. The presiding bishop did not participate in leading the services mentioned above.
Lastly, I know that watching McCain’s funeral some were very taken aback by the signing of the patriotic hymn “America the Beautiful” as the cross was brought to McCain’s casket immediately before the committal. See in particular Lizette Larson’s post at Pray Tell. That won’t happen tomorrow. As at Ford’s funeral at this point, the choir will sing the emphatically trinitarian Navy Hymn, “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.”
As at Ford’s funeral the recessional hymn is eight stanza’s of “For All the Saint,” a popular hymn at Episcopalian funerals.
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.