Many of the great buildings and monuments in Washington, D.C. are symbolic reminders of the freedoms we enjoy as citizens. The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, more commonly known as the Washington National Cathedral, also represents one of the ideals upon which America was founded: freedom of faith.
The idea of a great church for national purposes goes back to 1790 when President George Washington and city designer Pierre L’Enfant first began planning the new capital city. However, it wasn’t until 1907 that construction of the National Cathedral began with 26th President Teddy Roosevelt in attendance. Eighty three years later, our 41st President, George H.W. Bush, attended its completion in 1990.
Ranked as the sixth largest in the world and the second largest in the United States, the Cathedral is an Episcopal church by designation, but it is a house of worship and reflection for all people regardless of faith or religion.
It is an active space, marked with regular worship services, concerts, state funerals, weddings, pipe organ demonstrations, memorial services, lectures, the Inaugural Prayer Service, and the Annual Flower Mart Festival.
Docent-led walking tours of the Main Level called the Nave are a draw for visitors and educational tour groups. Typically 30 minutes in length, guests are educated on the Cathedral’s history and construction, Gothic architecture, and its art.
Made of Indiana limestone, the Cathedral was built with the same 14th and 15th-century methods used to construct the grand cathedrals of Europe, that is, stone on stone with mortar. Remarkable works of stone, wrought iron, wood carvings, stained glass, and fabric art decorate the building.
More importantly, every element of art is designed to teach people our nation’s history and values, stories of the Bible, and the Christian faith.
Prominent works featured include the Creation Rose window by Rowan LeCompte, an abstract representation of the creation story made up of over 10,500 pieces of glass; the Space Window commemorating the Apollo 11 mission to the moon with a piece of moon rock collected by astronaut Michael Collins; the tomb of 28th President Woodrow Wilson, the only U.S. President buried in D.C.; the Canterbury Pulpit, where religious leaders like the Dalai Lama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have spoken to the people; and the various chapels leading up to the High Altar.
Following the tour, visitors can go on an “extended tour” downstairs to the Crypt Level and explore the chapels, each one representing phases in Christ’s life. Bethlehem Chapel is the oldest part of the Cathedral where services have been held since 1912, which contains symbols and images of Christ’s birth.
St. Joseph of Arimathea Chapel contains a mural depicting Jesus’ burial after his death and a columbarium housing cremated remains which include those of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Resurrection Chapel contains mosaics that tell of the appearance of Jesus after rising from the dead, and it
is usually reserved for prayer.
While leaving the Cathedral, take note of the beautiful, fanciful carvings of gargoyles and grotesques that mark the exterior, among them the bust of the popular Star Wars character Darth Vader.
Since the Cathedral is a place of worship, it is asked that visitors bring no food or drink except water, silence all cell phones, and remove hats and sunglasses. Photography is permitted and encouraged.
The SCHOOL TRIP SPOTLIGHT is written by NationsClassroom's licensed tour managers and guides. Written from their years of experience with student groups, the articles feature exciting attractions from the most popular student travel destinations on the historic East Coast.