Washington National Cathedral—The Nation’s House of Prayer

On August 23, 2011, at 1:51 p.m., an earthquake that measured 5.8 on the Richter Magnitude Scale was felt all along the East Coast into Canada. Centered in the Piedmont area of Virginia, the quake rocked both New York and Washington, sending people rushing out of buildings. The impact was particularly severe on upper Wisconsin Avenue in D.C. where the National Cathedral sustained serious damage. As horrified Cathedral staff, as well as visitors and neighbors looked on, stones broke off and rained down. Several pinnacles rotated, twisting out of alignment.

Carvings, including an angel (above) and some of the gargoyles, were damaged and cracks appeared in floors. Later, a crane brought in for repairs, collapsed, stranding a worker at the top and crashing down onto the roof of the Cathedral’s historic Herb Cottage.

The Cathedral was closed to the public until November 7, 2011. Repairs have been estimated around $25 million. An exhibit within the Cathedral details the earthquake and its aftermath. Scaffolding still surrounds the Cathedral’s uppermost tower, yet inside, some repairs have already been made and the damage less obvious. (Long range preservation needs will require at least $100 more).

The National Cathedral, the episcopal seat of the bishop of Washington, is a national treasure, designated by Congress as the “National House of Prayer.” Each year it attracts more then 400,000 visitors of all faiths from all over the world. Funerals for three Presidents—Dwight Eisenhower (1969), Ronald Reagan (2004), and Gerald Ford (2007)—were held at the Cathedral. Presidential prayer services have been held after the inauguration of a President including Barack Obama. There have also been memorial services for those who died in war and on September 11, 2001.

On any given day, those who visit the Cathedral run the gamut. Tours are given every half hour led by dedicated volunteers clad in bright purple robes. During school breaks, student groups and families are everywhere.

Those interested in architecture are attracted by the Cathedral’s design, a mix of Gothic styles from the Middle Ages that includes flying buttresses, vaulting, and stained glass windows. There are statues throughout the Cathedral, including George Washington (above), Abraham Lincoln, and the Baby Jesus.

It is perhaps the only religious building to boast a carving of Darth Vader (above) on its facade, the result of a contest for children to design decorative sculptures.

The needlepoint covering chairs, cushions, and kneelers, particularly the whimsical ones (above) in the Children’s Chapel, are a delight.

Officially, the Cathedral’s local congregation is less than 800. Yet that number under represents the number of people who come to the Cathedral often, even daily, seeking a place to pray and meditate. Talk to these worshippers and you will find that each has a special place within the Cathedral to find peace.

Favorite sanctuaries include the Holy Spirit Chapel (top photo), the Children’s Chapel (above), and the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to scriptures, donated his own tomb to bury Jesus after the crucifixion.

The stained glass windows, numbering more than 200, are magnificent. The most famous one is the Space Window (above) commemorating the moon landing and incorporating a moon rock into the design.

On a sunny day, the rich colors from the stained glass windows send colorful rainbows dancing across the floors, walls, and onto statuary, another little miracle.

The Cathedral also has a rich musical tradition. Choir groups include the Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys and the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls. The Cathedral’s organ, the largest in Washington and one of the 20 largest organs in the world, consists of more than 10,000 pipes. Organ recitals are held on Sunday afternoons at 5:15 p.m.

The Cathedral isn’t perfect, something well thought out by the architects. These intentional design flaws, characterized by asymmetries that are often spotted by astute observers, send the message that only God is perfect.

The Washington National Cathedral
3101 Wisconsin Avenue, NW
For more information on holy week services, upcoming musical events, and how to donate to the earthquake fund, go to the Cathedral’s website.


About Charlene Giannetti (815 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 12 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.