Cathedral offers tour dedicated to military service
June 2, 2009
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 2, 2009) -- Most visitors don't expect to learn about military history in a cathedral, but a new tour is giving them the chance to do so.
The recently formed Service and Sacrifice Tour at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., highlights iconography, art, and historical connections in the cathedral that relate to the nation's military.
"It's a great learning experience for anyone," said Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Carleton Birch, Office of the Chief of Chaplains. "The tour is representative of all faiths and in that way parallels Army Chaplains who represent their own faith group while providing for the free exercise of everyone's faith."
Linda Strating, a cathedral docent, started the tour after discovering the connections.
"When I first got here and learned about the cathedral, I realized everywhere you look there was something about our nation's military woven into the cathedral's history and art," said Strating. "I thought that was remarkable and we should do something to share it."
The cathedral has been central to American history since President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the laying of the first stone in 1907. It's held three presidential funerals. The Dalai Lama and Martin Luther King Jr. have preached from the pulpit. It's also the resting place of President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and more than 200 other Americans who made significant contributions to society.
Embedded in that rich history are numerous links with the nation's military. The cathedral is home to statues of war heroes, stained-glass depictions of military battles, and many other relics associated with the armed forces.
"The connections here go back further than the world wars," said Strating. "Many of them relate to the Civil War and the American Revolution."
One of the tour highlights is a statue of George Washington, which is illuminated with an array of colors from stained-glass windows.
"We like to think General Washington is re-decorated for his service every day," said Strating.
The idea for a national house of prayer was originally hatched by Washington and Pierre Charles L'Enfant when the nation's capital was being designed. It wasn't completed until 1990 when President George H. W. Bush presided over the laying of the final stone.
Construction lasted 83 years, a relatively short amount of time to build a cathedral. It is now the largest completed cathedral in the United States and sixth largest in the world.
"This structure is the product of divine physics and geometry when you consider every boss stone and flying buttress is essential to the structural integrity," said Strating. "It's really an act of faith that we're standing here."
One of the philosophical cornerstones of the National Cathedral is to encourage people of any faith to enter.
"Everyone is welcome here," said Strating. "Recently we had eight members of the Iraqi government participate in a service."
The cathedral holds multiple services daily in addition to numerous services on Sunday. Birch said visiting the Cathedral can help people connect the past with the present.
"One of the challenges for clergy today is to bring historical Christianity in-line with what's going on in people's lives today," said Birch. "To bring it together with the contemporary and our nation's history here is remarkable."
Tours culminate with a visit to the War Memorial Chapel, which was dedicated by President Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II in 1957.
The chapel has rows of stained-glass windows, depicting significant moments in military history such as the ride of Paul Revere, the battle of Iwo Jima and the story of the four chaplains who sacrificed their lives during the sinking of an Army vessel in World War II. The chapel also maintains a 'Roll of Honor,' which allows servicemembers to be remembered in a manifest.
"It's amazing how huge and majestic everything is, but how deeply personal all the objects and details are in the cathedral," said Scott Edgar, who participated in the tour with his wife and son as guests of Birch.
Strating credited the cathedral staff and the other docents for their willingness to hold a tour honoring the military. Strating's father served in the Air Force, which she said has helped her gain an appreciation for military service.
She encourages visitors to bring guests.
"Don't come alone - please bring friends, family and those you serve with," said Strating. "Everyone who comes will draw something unique and very personal from this tour."
The Service and Sacrifice Tour is free and offered every Monday and Wednesday at 9:00 a.m., but advance reservations are required. To schedule a tour, contact Anne Harmon, manager of visitor programs, at 202-537-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.