National Cathedral Celebrates Centennial Year Washington's National Cathedral, now 100 years old, plays a prominent role in the life of the nation. The Protestant Episcopal church has hosted presidents and offered a place to mourn during national crises.
NPR logo

National Cathedral Celebrates Centennial Year

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
National Cathedral Celebrates Centennial Year

National Cathedral Celebrates Centennial Year

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're standing in the Bethlehem Chapel, in the crypt of the Washington National Cathedral. President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the laying of the Cathedral's foundation stone on September 29, 1907. And this Saturday, September 29th, marks the Cathedral's centennial anniversary. We're joined by the Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, dean of the Washington National Cathedral.

Thanks so much for taking the time to show us around.

Very Reverend SAMUEL LLOYD (Dean, Washington National Cathedral): It's a pleasure to have you.

HANSEN: Tell us where we're standing. What is significant about the Bethlehem Chapel?

Very Rev. LLOYD: The Bethlehem Chapel was the very first part of the Cathedral to be built. And from this place, the whole Cathedral grew for the next 83 years.

HANSEN: Eighty-three years to build this.

Very Rev. LLOYD: Yes. Long time.

HANSEN: Yeah. Why so long?

Very Rev. LLOYD: Although it has to be said, by the scale of Cathedrals, this was very fast. Many Cathedrals take five, six, seven hundred years to build. So we think we are pretty quick. Nevertheless, it was something that had to be built step-by-step, stone-by-stone and dollar-by-dollar. There were not people around ready to write a check for this. The Cathedral never received a single penny from the federal government or from the national Episcopal Church.

This was built because people of faith across the city, especially, and across the country, wanted this to happen. But it took a long time to raise the funds, going through two World Wars, a long Depression, a Vietnam War, a lot of ups and downs in the life of the nation. But through all that, they would start and stop and start and stop and then start again until they finished.

HANSEN: Where did it go from here?

Very Rev. LLOYD: Here we go.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Very Rev. LLOYD: We're now in the east end of the great choir. We're up very near the high altar. This is the focal point of the entire Cathedral. You know, the Cathedral is longer than the Washington Monument is tall. It's a very long space. And all eyes are intended to focus all the way up to this altar. The cross itself is close to six feet tall, even though from the back it looks like a modest little cross on top of an altar.

Everything about this space wants to sweep your eye up. And once you be caught up in a sense of verticality and mystery and awe and grandeur, and then your eye goes looking for places to land and sees carving and saints' images in glass. And then you have a sense of being surrounded by the company of saints and angels through time and beyond time. So there's a sense of a beyond this, of a heavenly realm that you experience when you step into this area, especially.

HANSEN: Now, this is officially an Episcopal Church.

Very Rev. LLOYD: It is. We're very much a part of our own Episcopal tradition. But we emphasize in our name and how we talk about ourselves that we do stand here for the country. And so it's our gift we give the country this sort of service. No one ever authorized us to be the nation's Cathedral. We've offered that to the nation, and the nation has gratefully accepted that.

It's a complicated role, though, to be advocates for peace and also be the nation's church was a quite a close relationship with the government. And making sure that we stay clear about who we are in relation to that government is a complicated dance.

HANSEN: I'm looking at the west end of the church, and there is a magnificent rose window just above what looks to be choir stalls.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: And the music starts right on time.

Very Rev. LLOYD: That's right. That's my favorite in the whole place. The west end rose window is, I think, the masterpiece of this whole place. The vast scattered array of rich pieces of glass and light pouring through gives you a sense of all God's glory pouring in. And there's hardly a more spiritual moment than to be in this place late afternoon as the sun, as it goes down, pouring light through that window and lighting up the whole space. It is a dazzling thing to experience.

HANSEN: We get a little sense of it with the morning light coming through the side and the stained glass windows.

Very Rev. LLOYD: See the light just splashing across the arches.

HANSEN: A kaleidoscopic effect.

Very Rev. LLOYD: It does. It really (unintelligible).

HANSEN: Is this Cathedral significantly different from Cathedrals that one would find in Europe? Is there something that makes this uniquely American?

Very Rev. LLOYD: It's uniquely American, really, most of all because it tells the American story.

HANSEN: Right up until the space age.

Very Rev. LLOYD: All the way there. So it's important to try to capture what God has been - how God has been encountered in this country as well as in the classic stories that come from Europe.

HANSEN: Where is the moon rock?

Very Rev. LLOYD: Well, let's go find the moon rock.

HANSEN: I'll follow you.

Very Rev. LLOYD: Okay.

HANSEN: Describe the stained glass window because it just stands out in style, in color.

Very Rev. LLOYD: It does. It does. So different from everything else here.

HANSEN: Absolutely.

Very Rev. LLOYD: You have a sense of large planets. These big round globes in a dark, almost deep purplish red color. And lines that suggests the orbits that the planets are swirling around, and a scattering of stars in the background. And just in the middle of that little white circle, and in that circle is a piece of rock that Neil Armstrong brought back from the moon.

HANSEN: White stars, blue background.

Very Rev. LLOYD: That's right.

HANSEN: It's stunning. And the sun is coming right through it…

Very Rev. LLOYD: It's now is really good.

HANSEN: …now as we're looking at it.

Very Rev. LLOYD: It is.

HANSEN: So it's getting even more beautiful. You're going to take us up to the bell tower?

Very Rev. LLOYD: Absolutely. It's the best spot in the city. You can see just about everything from there.

We're standing just outside the bell tower, gazing out across at the Potomac River. You can see the whole expanse of Washington from here. The two promontories in the city of Washington are Capitol Hill and Mount St. Alban's, two key places in life of the country. One that, of course, is in charge of the government of our nation, and the other embodies the spiritual life of the nation.

HANSEN: The cathedral is celebrating its centennial. Is it really finished?

Very Rev. LLOYD: The building is virtually finished. The cathedral will never be finished. We are so aware that a hundred years have been spent building a magnificent edifice. The great challenge for us is to make sure we use this place well for the serving of our nation, for the spreading of God's love, bringing people together to deal with problems they disagree with, holding up a vision of what human life can be.

So we think our work is just beginning. The second century needs to be at least as vigorous and as imaginative as the first was.

HANSEN: The Very Reverend Samuel Lloyd, dean of the Washington National Cathedral. Happy birthday and thank you so much.

Very Rev. LLOYD: Thank you. Wonderful to have you with us for our birthday celebration.

Unidentified Woman: Now one of the things that we do in the chapel is we like to celebrate. We are…

HANSEN: The National Cathedral Elementary School was in session on the day we visited. In fact, we came across the pupils on our tour. They were wishing the cathedral a happy hundredth birthday in song.

(Soundbite of song "Happy Birthday")

National Cathedral Elementary School Students: (Singing) Happy birthday. Happy birthday. Happy birthday to cathedral. Happy birthday. Happy birthday. Oh, I wish you all the best.

(Soundbite of applause)

HANSEN: The Washington National Cathedral's 100th birthday party begins this Saturday, September 29th. Activities include a reenactment of the laying of the foundation stone and demonstrations of cathedral arts. If you won't be in town that day, don't despair. Events celebrating the cathedral's centennial will last all year long.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.