As a photographer who loves architecture, I’ve long been fascinated by the imagery you can find in churches, so it is somewhat surprising that — until last weekend — I had only been once to the Washington National Cathedral.
Gary Rubin, a photographer friend, and I shot photos of the cathedral on a weekend excursion in 2016, but most of the photos were outside and in the Bishop’s Garden. Time and circumstances prevented us from truly exploring the inside — the cathedral is the second largest church in the U.S. — and I vowed to return at some point.
Last Sunday, another longtime friend (Cecile Holmes) was in town for a journalism educators conference. Cecile and I have known each other for more than 30 years since our days at the Houston Chronicle, where she was the religion editor and I briefly worked on the features copy desk.
Cecile, now a professor at the University of South Carolina, had arranged a tour for the journalism educators group with Kevin Eckstrom, one of her colleagues who now works as the cathedral’s chief communications officer. She invited me to come along, and I jumped at the chance to learn more about this fascinating structure and take some photos.
You can see the results here, including several photos taken during a quick 5-minute visit to the seventh-floor overlook at the back of the chapel. With limited time and lighting coming from all sides, the photos from up top — scattered throughout the album — were a challenge to get, but I’m pleased with the result.
For those of you interested in history, here are some facts we learned during the 90-minute tour:
• Formal name: The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington.
• Affiliation: Episcopal
• The longest ongoing construction project in Washington, D.C.’s history, work on the building started in 1907 and ended in 1990.
• Designated by Congress as the “National House of Prayer,” the cathedral is funded entirely from private sources. Fundraising has been ongoing for operations and maintenance, as well as repairs following the 2011 earthquake that damaged parts of the facility.
• State funerals have been held at the cathedral for three American presidents — Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford. Woodrow Wilson, the only U.S. president buried in Washington, D.C., is entombed in the cathedral. (Also buried in the cathedral: the ashes of Helen Keller and her tutor, Anne Sullivan.)
• The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his last Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968 from the cathedral’s “Canterbury Pulpit.” He was assassinated the following week in Memphis.
• Based on various Gothic architectural styles from the Middle Ages, the cathedral has more than 200 stained glass windows. One, which honors the landing on the Moon, includes a fragment of lunar rock in the center.
• Befitting a national memorial, the cathedral has a mix of religious and secular decorations. It includes statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, tributes to America’s war veteran, and state seals that are embedded in the floor of the narthex.
Thanks to Cecile, Kevin and the group for allowing me to join them on the tour. I highly recommend taking some time to see the cathedral if you have the chance. For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.