The construction of Washington National Cathedral atop the highest point in the District of Columbia was a grand epic. Located on land set apart by Pierre L’Enfant for a “great church for national purposes,” its creation stretched from a congressional charter in 1893 to the placement of the final carved stone in 1990. The nation’s second-largest cathedral, it was described by George Will in 1978 as “the last pure Gothic work the world will see built.”
The building was erected as donated funds became available. The foundation was laid in the 1900s, the nave was completed in the 1970s, and the west towers were finished in 1990. The work was supported by thousands of Episcopalians and other Christians from across the country.
A big financial impetus to the project was the intervention of retired World War I hero General John Pershing, when he became president of the National Cathedral Association during the 1920s. Pershing raised funds tirelessly, squiring donors around the in-progress facilities and even taping a nationwide movie-reel appeal in 1930. At a 1928 fundraiser he argued that “the capital of the nation is the strategic point at which to make a demonstration of our common Christianity. To try to build a worthy nation without God is impossible. I welcome you tonight, therefore, not only as friends, but as co-workers in an enterprise which seems to me of vital importance to the future of our country—the hastening of the day when it can no longer be said that in…the capital of the United States, there is no adequate expression of the religious faith of the people.”
The National Cathedral has hosted many services of national significance. These have included the national prayer service following the 9/11 attacks, and funerals for former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. It is a popular site in Washington, and often a symbol of national unity in times of trouble.
- Cathedral history, nationalcathedral.org/about/history.shtml
- John Perry, Pershing: Commander of the Great War (Thomas Nelson, 2011)